Skip to main content

I've always had a sneaking admiration for Terri-Jean Bedford, the indomitable dominatrix who went to court and got the prostitution laws thrown out. She is the very embodiment of female empowerment - a crusader, independent businesswoman and middle-aged sex kitten with a whip who's brought the entire justice system to its knees.

And now she can write off that whip as a business expense! Actually, she can probably do that already. Sex-trade workers are supposed to declare their incomes like everyone else. Presumably, they're entitled to the usual business deductions. A new computer for me. A new whip for Terri-Jean. What's the difference?

For those who fret we'll now have hookers on every block, I have news: We already do. Take a look at the pages of ads in any alt. city weekly. Without the sex industry, these publications wouldn't exist. But no one minds, because those who offer their services there are not a public nuisance. Like freelance writers, they quietly ply their trade in the condo right next door. Except they make more money.

Blind-eyeism is an excellent informal way to deal with activities that are undesirable but impossible to suppress. In tolerant Torontoland, Ms. Bedford has been conducting her business openly and undisturbed for a decade - ever since a series of prosecutions for operating a common bawdy house ended inconclusively. The authorities are happy to license massage parlours that offer very special, intimate massages, and to collect fees and taxes from them. Nor do we wish law enforcers to waste their time busting high-priced escorts, à la Eliot Spitzer. To quote Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who cares what they do so long as they don't frighten the horses?

So if most of the sex trade is already quasi-legal, then what's the problem? It's the stuff that does frighten the horses - the street trade. The street trade is a public nuisance. It's also gritty, seedy and dangerous. It doesn't include 24-year-olds trying to put themselves through medical school. The women and men engaged (or trapped) in it are highly vulnerable. They are the most likely to be exploited, abused, beaten up or even killed. They're usually drug-addicted. They need rescue (if possible) and protection.

Street prostitution remains illegal even in jurisdictions where brothels are legal. The argument for legalizing brothels is that street workers will be safer working in controlled environments. Legalization would break the link between prostitution and organized crime, and would make it easier for sex workers to report assaults to the police. It would also improve the sexual health of prostitutes and their clients.

That's the idea, anyway. Reality is different. After the Netherlands legalized brothels, criminals ran many of them anyway. The red-light district has been a problem ever since. In 2003, Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen complained that the situation was "a devil's dilemma" because "it appeared impossible to create a safe and controllable zone for women that was not open to abuse by organized crime."

"There are people who are really proud of the red-light district as a tourist attraction," said Amsterdam councillor Karina Schaapman, herself a former prostitute. "It's supposed to be such a wonderful, cheery place that shows just what a free city we are. But I think it's a cesspit. There's a lot of serious criminality. There's a lot of exploitation of women, and a lot of social distress. That's nothing to be proud of."

One thing is certain. Legalization is a bureaucratic wet dream. In Queensland, Australia, local government was required to develop advertising and zoning policies, weigh development applications from sex-industry businesses, establish food and health policies. Regulators are also supposed to oversee customers' car parking, external lighting, signs advertising the brothel, health and safety, entrances and exits, noise, litter, condom quality, lubricant, towels and all financial interactions.

Legalization, however, doesn't cut down on illegal brothels. After brothels were legalized in Sydney, Australia, in the mid-1990s, the number of illegal brothels went up. And legal brothels don't have much impact on the street trade, according to an analysis by London Metropolitan University. Legalization is also a "pull factor" for sex traffickers, and encourages sex tourism. Personally, I'd rather have tourists come to Toronto for the theatre.

Now that the judge has ruled, a lot of people want to boot this can of worms to Parliament. I can't imagine why. If you think the battle over the long-gun registry was insane, a debate over prostitution law would make that affair look like a group hug. Blind-eyeism can work better than any law, especially if no one can agree on what the law should be. Do we really want to prosecute people for smoking a joint? Of course not. Do we really want to legalize marijuana, and regulate it at the scale of tobacco? Maybe not.

I suspect we'd all be better off to decriminalize (rather than legalize) prostitution, as we more or less already have, and leave each community to figure out its own blind-eye standards. Ignore the consensual indoor sex trade, try to protect street workers while managing the public-nuisance factor, and vigorously develop exit strategies to get them into other lines of work. It isn't perfect, but when you're trying to regulate people having sex, what is?

Interact with The Globe