Ontario cities could be getting brothels as early as next year, thanks to a ruling from the province’s top court this week. The decision allows prostitutes to hire bodyguards, starting next month, but upheld a ban on street solicitation. This means municipalities could start issuing licences so that prostitutes could operate brothels as any other small business.
Proponents say the move to legalization fights trafficking, helps prevent violence and gives sex workers a safe, controllable environment.
To get more details, we contacted Valerie Scott, a former sex worker and the legal co-ordinator (and former executive director) of Sex Professionals of Canada. She answered Globe reader questions on Tuesday.
WHERE WILL THE BROTHELS BE?
Reader Chris Risk: What is the next step? Will [Sex Professionals of Canada]begin discussions with municipalities around issues of licensing, etc?
Ms. Scott: Municipalities need to make sure that licences are a reasonable fee. If they charge thousands of dollars per year, sex workers will not be able to afford a licence, but organized crime will. We don't want to see another Amsterdam fiasco. Also, municipalities need to hold meaningful discussions with sex worker rights organizations about regulating our occupation. For the past two years, Canadian sex worker groups have been meeting to discuss municipal law, employment and labour laws, income tax laws, company laws, pension plans, workers compensation, union laws, etc.
When Rob Ford was running for mayor, and just prior to our first win in Ontario Superior Court, we wrote to him requesting a meeting. He refused, saying that associating with people like us could be damaging to his character. He was in the middle of an election campaign and didn't seem to know who we are. We hope he will meet with us in the near future.
Reader Brenda: I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on zoning. Not the crazy “turn Toronto Island into a red light district” type of zoning. But, what about the idea of regulating sex work simply as a business, and allowing sex workers to set up shop according to business versus residential zoning?
Ms. Scott: Agreed! As I mentioned, for the past two years, sex worker groups have been discussing and writing plans municipalities can adopt. We would like brothels to be small in scale and not forced into ghettoes or “red light” districts. Segregation has never worked. Sydney, Australia, decriminalized in the late 1980s. There are about 100 brothels in various commercially zoned areas.
A study published by Basil Donovan of the University of New South Wales, March 23, 2012, found that Sydney has the “world's healthiest sex industry” and the majority of sex workers are “well adjusted and comfortable with their occupation.” It's not a utopia though, and the study states there are “ragged edges” and room for improvement. I briefly worked in a brothel there and it was great.
HOW WILL THIS HELP PROSTITUTES' SAFETY?
Reader Val: Hi Valerie. Everybody is concerned about safety of the prostitutes. What is your feeling about this issue?
Ms. Scott: Just by virtue of being able to work together it promotes safety. If everyone reading this had to always work in complete isolation, they too, would experience more violence. Also, we will be able to hire staff, like receptionists or drivers. Even cleaning staff would have been subject to the old procuring law. Also, the vast majority of our clients are good and decent men, but a tiny percentage who are violent won't be able to count on our silence and fear of being found out by the police.
Reader “Unfantatic”: Will the government supervise these brothels, ensuring that disease and protection for the girls are of prime concern?
Valerie Scott: Sex workers are eager to work with governments to ensure fair business regulations, and not hysterical reactions. Safe, clean and healthy environments are a primary concern for us.
Reader Michael: Are there any specific proposals regarding what programs and laws should be put in place to ensure sex workers are healthy, safe, and not being exploited?
Ms. Scott: Yes. There are many provisions in the Canadian Criminal Code that can be used. For example, we only challenged one of the 10 subsections of the procuring law. The rest still stands. We did not, and will not, challenge any of human trafficking laws or the youth prostitution laws. We stand firmly against human trafficking and underage prostitution. In the future, we will be able to call the appropriate authorities when we see another sex worker being exploited. As it stands under the old law, people would be afraid of being busted for sex work. This is another reason why the governments shouldn't fight our court wins, and work with sex workers.
Reader Stephanie Henry: In an effort to inform myself, could you please clarify as to whether you are support prostitution in general, or those who make a conscious decision to carry on in this career. I definitely support a woman's right to prostitution, however I do not feel that we should be aiding those who have substance abuse issues and solely prostitute to pay for their habit. In cases such as those, I believe brothels may only be helping desperate women reach rock bottom. As stated, I support those who make an informed choice.
Ms. Scott: Drug abuse is a problem that spans almost every occupation. I do think Canada needs to revisit its approach to addiction. We don't like to see people in this occupation against their free will either. I don't think brothels will help them though, as I don't see them being able to hold down the job. My heart goes out to the men and women working the streets. It's very dangerous.
Reader “puzzled”: How do you keep organized crime out of this industry given their prominence in the current industry, including strip clubs?
Ms. Scott: The best way to get rid of organized crime is to decriminalize sex work. Shine a light on the industry. If we are forced to work on the run, and under the gun, these guys prosper. Legitimize our occupation, let us work with city officials etc. One example is: Cities should ensure licensing fees be reasonably priced. If they are not, we won't be able to afford a licence, but organized crime sure will.
Reader Kai: Valerie, although this is an Ontario ruling, it's likely to affect the national regulations. The issue of prostitution has already been brought up in the Alberta provincial election. Are you optimistic that this ruling will be far-reaching and have a positive impact on the sex industry?
Ms. Scott: I'm hopeful that it will open the door for a more rational approach to prostitution. I see yesterday's ruling as the Court of Appeal for Ontario telling the federal government that it's time to catch up to what the federally appointed Fraser Committee recommended in 1985. I don't think the feds should waste time with yet another appeal, but it is their prerogative, and the taxpayers’ money, so that is the avenue they will take.
Reader Sue: Will this mean that sex trade workers will be obliged to keep receipts properly and declare their income, and pay taxes like the rest of us?
Ms. Scott: Yes. In fact we already are required to pay taxes, and many of us do. We now have an occupation code with the CRA. We can, and do claim expenses, and pay into CPP. Many sex workers are unaware that they can pay taxes. We receive new inquires on how to go about it every year. I imagine more will pay now. In defence of those who didn't, why pay people to throw you in jail. Responsibilities should come with rights.
Reader “C2012”: Is there any talk of moving toward starting a union for sex workers?
Ms. Scott: There has been. For those working in a bar or any other venue, who wish to unionize, they should be able to do so. But the entire industry shouldn't have to. Sex workers are not in favour of a “one size fits all” approach around unionization.