Could this iconic Toronto strip club soon include a municipally sanctioned brothel? via Flickr.
Technically prostitution was never illegal in Canada, but up until recently the majority of activities surrounding the sex trade were. Amongst other things, prostitutes were prohibited from offering their services in “a fixed indoor location,” aka a brothel. When Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott challenged this law and two others in front of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, all three laws were deemed unconstitutional. It was a massive step in changing the conditions in which sex workers conduct their activities, opening the door to a multitude of new setup possibilities for the industry.
This new Supreme Court ruling introduces a host of new questions, particularly when it comes to opening brothels. For example: Where do we put these constitutionally-protected sex parlours? And who's allowed to run them? Municipal councillor Giorgio Mammoliti is showing support for an initiative to let Toronto strip club owners tack on brothels to their establishments. It's hard to take Mammoliti, who is one of Rob Ford's lone supporters in City Hall, seriously in the slightest. It seems, however, that he’s thought about a brothel partnership with the City long and hard (pun intended), as his involvement in the matter can be traced back to 2011.
Back then, Mammoliti saw the push for legalized prostitution as an opportunity waiting to be seized. He apparently thought, this looks like a neat way for the city to make money or something, and went ahead proposing a plan for an official, bounded red light district. Unfortunately Mammoliti’s idea was tragically flawed. In fact, his original suggestion was to confine legal brothels to Toronto Island; already home to a nude beach, amusement park, art centre, and a small community of hippie-ish people. Access is limited, and the idea of a sex work-island was just too much to handle for the constituents (because it didn't make any sense whatsoever) and so the initiative was canned.
Fast forward to December 2013, when the highest court of Canada confirmed the invalidation of the laws as they were originally formulated and gave legislators a year to come up with constitution-abiding rewrites. With the possibility of brothels randomly sprouting across the city, members of the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada figured it would be a good time to propose placing brothels in the hands of experienced and qualified establishments, i.e. strip clubs. As association director Tim Lambrinos explained, the idea isn’t to change the demand and turn strip clubs into brothels. The “enhanced experience” would take place in a separate part of the building, accessible through a different door. Also, the exotic dancers would not be those working as sex workers. The logic behind this is an extension of that behind the Supreme Court’s ruling, to keep the sex workers safe. In essence, the Adult Entertainment Association (AEA) is looking towards increasingly regulating prostitution by taking the women off the street and allowing them to work in a supervised environment. The advantage of relying on established strip clubs, as Mr Lambrinos puts it, is that they are already accustomed to working with law enforcement and health agencies to comply with existing regulations. Club owners are apparently known to give a great deal of importance to their employees’ safety and have their reputations to uphold, vis-à-vis the authorities.
Despite the Association’s good intentions, North American social norms and the stigma surrounding prostitution remain; plus, city-endorsed brothels likely appear despicable and just plain wrong to most of the city's conservative contingent. Even still, Mammoliti is sticking his neck out for brothels. Concerning the new proposal, he publicly stated that it was “worth our while listening to them” and in fact, attended the GTA strip club operators’ meeting at Niagara-On-The-Lake earlier this month, during which a partnership between the city and the clubs to establish the brothels was formally pitched. According to a source who was at the meeting, he agreed with the concept in principle, provided that a comprehensive study be conducted prior to implementing a pilot project. The study would be paid for by the Adult Entertainment Association and mandated to a consulting firm. Although not yet started, results are expected for July. The pilot project would be a yearlong trial period during which the mechanisms deemed fit by the study would be implemented and set into motion. Meanwhile, as the Association tries to align their cause with the cracked out bureaucracy at City Hall, the infamous Bunny Ranch brothel in Las Vegas has already announced their intention to open up one of their establishments in Toronto; so clearly, there's a power vacuum in Toronto for brothel superiority that the AEA is not interested in missing out on.
This type of partnership between the strip clubs and the city would have serious repercussions on the state of the sex industries and the sex workers’ conditions, that’s a given. What isn’t exactly clear is whether the potential benefits would trump the risk of organized exploitation on the part of these club owners. Yes, increased regulation ensuing from a partnership between the city and members of the Adult Entertainment Association could lead to a standardized, safer practice of sex work. However it could also severely limit the workers’ control on their activities and cripple their revenue.
If you ask Valerie Scott, one of the three plaintiffs in the Bedford v. Canada case and legal coordinator of the Sex Professionals of Canada, handing over exclusive rights to strip club owners for operating legal brothels is anything but a good idea. To her knowledge, this “group of guys” have not consulted sex workers in the development of their new model, and she suspects it will prove itself inaccessible to working women. In her opinion, the licensing fees meant to create revenue for the city are likely to approach those of erotic massage parlors ($11,794.02), which would be anything but affordable to the average Canadian sex worker, who earns around $40,000 a year; and would be unable to open her own "practice" as it were. If this were to be the case, the club owners would have virtually unlimited power over the women, who would be left with limited control over their work and diminished revenue. In the worst case scenario, this would unleash a legal, pimping monopoly into the City of Toronto. Valerie suggests that a more independent model (where workers create their own safe space) is a better model.
Mammoliti could not be reached in time for publication to respond to questions. Although he can be applauded for adopting a stance contrary to the prohibitionist approach most conservatives advocate for, given that no sex workers are being consulted about this potential partnership, Mammoliti's motives are clearly not as FTG (for the girls) as they may initially seem. The issue is complicated, a lot is at stake for the future of sex workers, and clearly there's a battle in the city for control of its forthcoming brothel development. The question now is should control be handed over to the AEA and the City post haste? Or is there a better solution that openly includes sex workers in the discussion?