Public Works: Regulating Brothels
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Public Works: Regulating Brothels

Would it make things better for sex workers?

Amsterdam's red light district. Photo by {a href=""}sevennine{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Amsterdam’s red light district. Photo by {a href=""}sevennine{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

In 2010, an Ontario Superior Court judge struck down laws forbidding people to run bawdy houses, live off the avails of prostitution, and communicate for the purposes of prostitution. The key elements of the ruling were upheld by an appeals court in March of last year, and are now awaiting a Supreme Court review.

Until the appeal process is complete, brothels remain technically illegal. However, if the Supreme Court sides with the lower court decisions, your house will be able to be as bawdy as you like.

Cities around the world boast officially sanctioned red light districts, and still more have unofficial ones. If we want to understand what a legal sex trade might look like, and how it might be regulated in Toronto, we should consider experiences elsewhere.

Amsterdam’s red light district has long been the destination of choice for gap-year slackers looking to pay for sex without going to jail. Prostitution has been tolerated there for decades, and in 2000 the sex trade was legalized and brothels placed under formal government regulation.

That said, neither legality nor location makes all the problems go away, as the Dutch have learned. Even regulated, the sex trade can draw a dark element.

Beginning around 2004, it became evident that Amsterdam’s red light district was rife with exploitation of sex workers, money laundering, drug trafficking, and other crime, often the work of international syndicates. As a result, over the last few years the authorities have tightened enforcement of regulations, resulting in the closure so far of about half of the 482 “windows” (these are literal windows, with half-clad women beckoning passersby from behind plexiglass—a marketing technique that also feels like an ironic commentary on consumer culture and the objectification of women).

Also, as of this year, new rules are being introduced which, among other things, will require brothel operators to submit a business plan, and will raise the legal age for sex workers from 18 to 21.

Despite the issues they’ve faced, the Netherlands still deems legalized prostitution, and restricting brothels to designated areas, preferable to the dangerous mess that develops in the absence of oversight.

The basic case for legalization: bringing sex workers under protection of the law would provide them with safer working conditions and access to standard employment protections that ensure they are treated fairly. More cynically, it would also allow the Canada Revenue Agency to tax the industry.

If the Supreme Court accepts the arguments made by the lower courts and the prostitution laws are struck down, the next question will be how to regulate the business.

Traditionally Toronto has tolerated Prostitution Lite™, in the form of “holistic spas” and the like, flashing neon signs from second-storey windows all around the city. Periodically the police raid one, to reinforce the understanding that while a certain amount of rubbing and tugging is acceptable, thrusting and grunting may be prosecuted.

The City has the authority to zone these premises, including limiting them to specific areas, and it can be presumed that this power would extend to newly legitimized brothels. There are a couple of broad possibilities here.

One option would be simply to license establishments and let them apply to set up shop throughout the City. This is the model used by the Australian state of Queensland, which allows applications for brothels anywhere, subject to approval by local authorities and rules regarding proximity to schools and residences.

Administratively this is relatively simple, but could lead to numerous legal battles. Torontonians have been known to fly to arms at the first whiff of a roti shop; imagine the reaction when someone tries to open an honest-to-God brothel down the street.

With that in mind, should “erotic massage” and related practices become fully legal, there’s also a case to be made for the red light district approach.

Assuming the area or areas chosen are reasonably distant from residences, the red light district could allay citizen mistrust, or at least reduce conflicts around managing newly legalized sex work. Moreover, centralizing brothels in one area would make them easier to inspect, regulate, and police. Of course, this area could also become a focal point for crime and disruptive behaviour.

Given the hand-wringing over the prospect of a casino, many Torontonians may not be ready for Patpong by the lake. But if the sex trade gets pushed out of the alley and onto Main Street, Toronto will need to make some decisions.