Toronto will no longer force workers at body rub parlours to keep their doors unlocked—a win for sex worker safety, a prominent advocate said.
“It’s quite ridiculous that it's so small and we had to fight for so long, but it's really good news,” said Elene Lam, the director of Butterfly, an advocacy group for Asian and migrant sex workers.
Toronto bylaws prohibited body rub parlours and holistic centres from keeping their doors locked, so that inspectors could have full access. But the rules led to thefts, abuse, and even death, sex workers say. By locking doors, workers are now able to screen people entering their businesses.
VICE News reached out to the city for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
Sex work in Canada is effectively criminalized, but Toronto offers licences for body rub parlours and holistic centres. A body rub parlour is defined by the city as “any place where non-medical or non-therapeutic massaging services are provided by someone other than registered massage therapists, or other licensed or registered holistic practitioners.” Until last month, relevant bylaws, which have been under review since last year, included the stipulation that doors had to remain unlocked.
In February, Ashley Arzaga, a 24-year-old mother to a 5-year-old girl, was allegedly killed by a 17-year-old man who entered her North York spa with a machete. Advocates said at the time that her death could have been avoided if the doors were locked. Lam estimates 60 avoidable robberies targeted body rub parlours and holistic centres between June 2019 and June 2020.
VICE News obtained a letter from Butterfly addressed to Toronto Mayor John Tory, city councillors, and several additional agencies, in which sex workers detailed a myriad of dangerous encounters that could have been avoided if the door to their establishment were locked.
“I had previously been charged by bylaw enforcement officers, and already had a $240 fine in court,” wrote a sex worker named Angel. That's why she left her centre’s doors unlocked, which made it easy for three men to storm the premises, rob, intimidate, and sexually assault her, she said.
“With locked doors, we would be able to screen clients and refuse entry to those who seem suspicious or bad intentioned,” Angel wrote. “We are middle-aged women who are at high risk of being targeted… The city must allow us to lock our door. The city should not punish or charge us.”
A petition with 500 signatures from workers and their allies was also presented to the city, Lam said.
According to Lam, the commitment by the city to stop enforcing the policy represents one step of many, and she said she won’t stop advocating for more changes.
“This win is not just that (the city) is willing to change, but that they recognize the concerns of the workers themselves,” Lam said. “We really hope this communication and this direction will continue.”
Lam said the overpolicing and racial profiling of sex workers need to be addressed as well. In July, VICE News reported how Canada Border Services Agency and local law enforcement target migrant and Asian sex workers. City officials also need to be mindful of the fact that anti-sex trafficking groups often conflate sex work with sex trafficking, Lam said.
“The worker voices are being heard right now and they should not be assumed as trafficking victims” Lam said, adding that she appreciates officials and allies who advocated on behalf of workers employed at body rub parlours and holistic centres. “Sex workers have lots of supporters...and we will keep fighting,” Lam said.
Sex workers have also told VICE News several times that the Canadian government needs to decriminalize sex work entirely to ensure safety and security in the industry. Bill C-36 technically says selling sex is allowed, but every other activity associated with a sex worker—paying for sex, advertising sex work, aiding a sex worker—is prohibited. Because of the rules, sex workers rarely call police for support when they face abuses; they’re worried officers will shut down their workplaces, which would threaten their income.
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