Christmas in Vancouver's brothels and sex work strolls
What are the holidays like for one of our city's most marginalized communities? VO brings you into Vancouver's brothels and onto its street corners to find out, invited by Jen's Kitchen outreach and advocacy project.
We first hit the grocery store. Allan – who started Jen's Kitchen in 2004, initially delivering 12 sandwiches and 12 condoms – has grown her project into a regular outreach service which delivers food hampers, Christmas gifts, clean needles and drug paraphernalia to survival sex trade workers on the street and in brothels, as well as supporting women getting out of prison and single mothers.
She moves nimbly through the aisles, shopping for the best bargains and ingredients that will pack the most nutrients into one sandwich. Tonight, she decides, we're making lunch bags with tuna salad sandwiches and apple juice -- “the apple counteracts cocaine psychosis,” she explains as she drops several 10-packs into my basket.
Heading back to Allan's tiny bachelor apartment in a West End social housing complex, we begin a several-hour assembly line of sandwiches. She makes me chop the onions – a task I don't mind despite the tears, having worked in restaurant kitchens. She throws Aerosmith on the stereo as we chop, mix, construct and bag the ingredients – 'Living on the Edge' plays several times as the album repeats.
Allan shares stories from her nine years working in the survival sex industry – from the street corners, to brothels and for pimps.
One December, in Calgary, Allan was working the streets in a snow storm when police stopped her.
“I remember standing out there freezing my ass off,” she laughs. “Out on the street, you don't have time to worry about the cold. Even in a blizzard, you put a skirt on.
“So I was outside in this blizzard, I was standing there and the police came and said, 'Can we give you a ride home? It's too late, go home – there's a blizzard outside!'”
Allan describes the hard rules and realities sex workers live by – but in the midst of sometimes fierce competition and drug-and-poverty-fuelled violence, you can often find community, mutual aid and a sense of family.
“When you're out on the street and get into a car, if you can see another worker, that worker can take down the license plate,” she says. And at a time when she herself worked in a brothel, she remembers delivering Christmas dinners to the other women on her floor. On the street, one senior worker even forced the other women to attend weekly meetings to discuss issues arising in their community.
But the picture in the survival sex industry is not, by any stretch, rosy. Allan's best friend was murdered, women she knew in Vancouver went missing, and she herself was sexually assaulted. And while she acknowledges the survival sex industry is plagued by violence, she argues that workers need to be provided with safe working conditions, protection and supportive services.
“The sex industry is inherently violent, and no matter what safety plan you put in place, there is danger,” she explains. “There's no safety plan you can put in place that will prevent it.
“Even sex workers who work indoors -- guys are coming and raping and bear-spraying them in the brothels. You have to be alert 24 hours a day. You can never let your guard down. In the survival sex trade, your body has to be always on guard – you're in fight-or-flight mode -- and as a result, you develop post-traumatic stress or panic disorders. One of the ways you cope is to use drugs or alcohol.”
After loading at least 50 sandwiches and juice boxes into brown paper lunch bags – the kind kids take to school – we wash up and dress warmly for the night ahead. Our first stop is right at the core of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) – an illegal, underground brothel operated in plain sight as a “hotel.”
On the way, Allan describes how she delivers turkey dinners and gift packages to sex workers every Christmas.
“The thing about being a survival sex worker on Christmas day -- people don't think about the drug addict on the street,” she says. “They don't wonder, 'I wonder if those people will eat today?'
“I give them turkey dinners, with potatoes and stuffing. We're cooking for six hours straight. We also give out Christmas bags to workers and we make 40 dinners, which we take out to women on the street and in the brothels.”
In the past, Jen's Kitchen gift packages included make-up, chocolates, as well as needed supplies like toiletries, shampoo, and condoms.
“One Christmas, I was giving out presents in the brothels, and I gave the security guard a snow-globe,” she remembers, chuckling. “He was thrilled with it!
“He was like, 'No way! This is the best thing in the world.' Here he is, doing security for a brothel -- who'd think he'd want a snow-globe for Christmas?! But he was as happy as can be.”
We arrive at the door of the underground brothel as the night's drizzle turns into a light rain. An elderly man with a baseball cap stands out front, a cigarette hanging limply from his lip. Evidently he's the “hotel” guard, but he doesn't look at all muscly – certainly not my preconception of a beefy Hell's Angel bouncer (I'm told this brothel is not run by organized crime).