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Is Montreal's Mayor Serious About a Massage Parlor Crackdown?

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has come out saying he wants to crack down on the city's numerous massage parlors that offer sexual services. The parlors operate under a license system, but that doesn't stop some parlors from providing underage girls or...
December 18, 2013, 5:57pm

Glamor shots from Lily's profile on "Montrealaise," an online directory of Montreal sex workers and erotic masseuses.

Lily jerks off men for a living at an east end Montreal massage parlor. She loves her job. Sometimes she massages her clients’ prostates, and sometimes she pees on them. She doesn’t give blowjobs or have sex with her clients, though. “I know some girls are more open-minded,” she says, “but not in my case.” She makes about $50,000 a year, pays her taxes and, most importantly, feels safe where she works.

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Lily is not a drug addict. She doesn’t have a pimp. She’s 29 and Quebecoise. Over the phone she sounds bright, fun, and articulate. She doesn’t fit the profile of the kind of masseuse that Montreal’s new mayor, Denis Coderre, and his administration are looking to crack down on.

Coderre, a former federal Liberal part cabinet minister elected Montreal's mayor last month, announced shortly after taking office that one of his priorities was cleaning up the city’s many, many massage parlors. How many there are is difficult to calculate, but a rough estimate by several sources puts the number between 250 and 350 on the island. Counting the greater Montreal area, there are probably well over 400.

It’s no secret that most massage parlors often offer a lot more than a simple massage. Most erotic salons have, at a minimum, naked masseuses and a handy box of tissues nearby. Some, Lily acknowledges, offer full service, which means sex is part of the package. She also says that others offer sex with underage girls, or girls trafficked from East Asia or Eastern Europe or Latin America. But that, she says, is a tiny percentage of the total.

So Lily, and many other people in the city, are wondering if the mayor’s crusade against the rub-and-tug industry is political grandstanding or a genuine concern. The industry is deeply worried that it’s the latter.

Yannick Chicoine runs La Montrealaise, a massage parlor on Hochelaga Street. He’s also the spokesman for the newly created Quebec Association of Erotic Massage Parlours (ASMEQ), formed in the wake of Coderre’s announcement. Yannick, like Lily, insists the overtly criminal establishments that hire underage or trafficked women represent a tiny percentage of the market.

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“We offer great service in a legitimate way,” he says. “We want to follow the rules and collaborate with city officials.”

His organization currently represents about 30 massage parlors in the city, but he’s keen on expanding it. He says his associates are all strictly above board, run clean establishments, and see a real need to clarify and regulate the industry.

“We offer a safe environment,” he says. “We give the girls schedules, training, advice, we work closely with [sex workers’ rights group] Stella—and any girl that needs help can go to Stella and get options in order to get out of the industry.”

In a perfect world, Yannick would like to see massage parlors regulated, with clear rules on where and how they can operate. He wants no part of the truly awful side of the industry, which clearly exists, in Montreal and elsewhere. But he would like to see established lines along which he can operate. One part of the solution is fixing the issuing of permits. Unlike other big Canadian cities, Montreal’s licenses are spread over 19 boroughs, and cover very different industries, creating a lot of confusion while opening up the door to a whole host of problems.

“Toronto and Vancouver separate their licenses between therapeutic and erotic massage parlors,” he says. “In Montreal, you have the same license for hairdressers, nail filers, tanning salons, and erotic massages.”

Sex workers in Montreal have had to do a lot of moving around over the past few years. Ever since the city decided that the nerve center for its interminable annual festivals would be within spitting distance of its former red light district around St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine streets, Montreal’s working girls have been scattered hither and yon, moving mostly indoors. Which means they’re popping up in strip clubs, escort agencies, and massage parlors.

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But cops already regularly scope these places out, says Stella’s director Emilie Laliberte, and they already have enough tools at their disposal to properly police the industry—provided their resources are used efficiently. She’s hoping Coderre’s plan will target the establishments with real problems and not bust women like Lily. Closing down the massage parlors would do nothing but drive the industry further underground and into darker corners, she argues. That would put the women in more danger, away from resources that help them and even further stigmatize them.

It would be nice, both Yannick and Emilie say, if they knew what the mayor’s plan was. Both have tried repeatedly to get in touch with the mayor and his representatives to discuss the issue, to no avail.

December 17 was the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. And there remains a fair amount of room for debate about the nature of sex work (including on this website, with strong opinions from Sarah Ratchford and Meghan Murphy), Friday, December 20 is going to be a big day for the industry. That’s when the Supreme Court of Canada delivers its verdict on Bedford vs Canada, which will either upend the country’s prostitution laws or cement them.

Maybe Denis Coderre, savvy politician that he is, is being quiet for a reason.

@patricklejtenyi