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In Ontario, sides line up as battle over bawdy houses set to resume

Hundreds of shadowy body rub parlours operated by exploitative pimps and shysters are operating on the outskirts of Toronto, the Ontario Crown warns in a court document filed on Thursday.

The Crown brief urges the Supreme Court of Canada to let police keep the powers they have to protect female sex workers, who are often cowed into submissive silence.

The document forms part of an attempt by the Crown to persuade the court to maintain an interim ban on so-called bawdy houses.

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However, a group of prostitutes who have successfully challenged the ban through two levels of court accuse Ontario and federal Crown lawyers of scaremongering.

In the decision under appeal, the Ontario Court of Appeal invalidated the Criminal Code's prohibition on keeping a brothel. It was critical of an anomaly that makes prostitution legal, yet practitioners are compelled to work in dangerous isolation. It granted prostitutes the right to set up brothels and hire staff to protect them.

After agreeing to hear an appeal of the decision, the Supreme Court imposed a one-year stay.

In documents filed on Thursday, the women's lawyers contend that sex-trade workers are beginning to cluster together in safe surroundings that are proving much safer than the streets.

Their legal brief includes a study showing that a Vancouver housing program where prostitutes live and work together has had a marked effect on their safety.

The two vastly differing scenarios characterize a new front in the ongoing battle over the country's prostitution laws – a conflict the Supreme Court of Canada is set to resolve within the next year or so.

In the meantime, the one-year stay that maintained the legal status quo is due to lapse in March, and both sides are heading back to court.

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Federal and Ontario prosecutors insist that the stay must be renewed so that police can maintain surveillance on massage parlours that may employ underage prostitutes or women trafficked from Eastern Europe and Asia.

However, Alan Young, a law professor representing the prostitutes who brought the challenge, said the stay must end so that the sex trade can be above ground and focus on safety and security.

"The hysterical fears of countless pimp-operated massage parlours is completely undercut by the simple fact that the police consider bawdy house investigations to be a low priority, with very few charges laid every year," Prof. Young said in an interview.

In his brief, Prof. Young cited a recent University of British Columbia study that found most of 39 prostitutes who live in two housing projects said they felt more secure. The women said they also feel freer to communicate openly with police about their safety.

The women-only buildings feature a front desk where clients sign in. There are surveillance cameras and "bad date" reports posted at the entrances, and prostitutes live close enough to one another that they can quickly obtain help in an emergency.

"The study reveals that these safer indoor sex work spaces with supportive policies reflect the needs of the women who work in sex work by increasing their safety in sex work transactions, including refusing unwanted services, negotiating condom use and avoiding violent perpetrators," Kate Shannon, an expert on sexual health and violence, said in an affidavit.

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Prof. Young said the projects represent the future of legal prostitution – not the spectre of mega-brothels disrupting peaceful neighbourhoods.

"The Vancouver housing projects show that with a little creativity and innovation, it is possible to develop safe, indoor establishments that protect the vulnerable and which pose no threat to the community or the public interest," Prof. Young said.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the prostitution challenge in June. It is almost certain to reserve its decision for several months.

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About the Author
Justice reporter

Born in Montreal, Aug. 3, 1954. BA (Journalism) Ryerson, 1979. Previously covered environment beat, Queen's Park. Toronto courts bureau from 1981-85. Justice beat from 1985 - present. More

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