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Sex and the City

Our Attitude Toward Prostitution Is the Worst Mix of Moralism and Hypocrisy—Here’s How to Change It

It's not hard to buy sex. You need only turn to the back pages of your local alt-weekly, where escort agencies advertise women like Natasha, whose age (twenty), height (5'8"), measurements (36B-24-34), weight (120 pounds) and ethnicity (French-Canadian) are listed beneath a photo of a topless woman, legs spread, face and breasts obscured by black stars. There's always the street, too, where women with open sores and hollow faces look for customers amid nighttime traffic. Yet despite its visibility, sex work is outlawed in Canada. The result is a dangerous, opaque industry where women-who make up the vast majority of sex workers-are all too easily abused and exploited.

Ads in a Montreal newspaper for escort agencies.


Prostitution hasn't always been illegal in Canada. Until the twentieth century, brothels operated in abundance, with only occasional intervention from police. With the dawn of the Victorian era, though, came the birth of a new movement: social reform. Led by devout Protestants, the social reformers declared war on society's dark side, which included drugs, alcohol, weird and newfangled dance moves and, of course, prostitution. "Prostitution is the lowest, cruelest, filthiest and most injurious offspring of perdition," harrumphed the Reverend Frederic Du Val, a Winnipeg reformer, in 1910.

The movement also extended its attacks to non-white Canadians, whom reformers accused of patronizing brothels and controlling the sex trade. The Chinese, among others, were accused of importing prostitutes to Canada and luring innocent white women into the so-called white-slave trade. For many Canadians, the largely fictional image of young white girls forced into a world of vice by "foreign" heathens was a compelling argument against prostitution. By the 1920s, the social reformers had won their war: Chinese were excluded from Canada, Chinese-Canadians had been stripped of their civil rights, alcohol and gambling were illegal, and prostitution had been bid adieu once and for all.

Or so the reformers thought. Prostitution hadn't been eliminated, of course: it simply slid underground-in some cases, not very far underground at all. Montreal, located in the only province to resist prohibition, is perhaps the most obvious example. La belle ville's political corruption, busy port and position as Canada's metropolis helped it to become one of North America's most notorious "sin cities." Booze flowed freely, and gambling dens, strip clubs and brothels flourished. Despite the illegality, city officials and local police were happy to accept their city's sex trade, swayed in no small part by the hefty amount of graft that found its way into their pockets.

Most of Montreal's brothels were located in the red-light district, a bustling, old part of town centred on the corner of St. Laurent and St. Catherine streets. Women would hang out of windows and shout out to passing men, holding up fingers to indicate the price of their services: one, two or three dollars. As the writer and historian William Weintraub observes in his lively book City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and '50s, the choice and variety of brothels was enormous: "For the wealthy, there were the chic uptown bordellos, like the one at 150 Milton Street, said to be frequented by government ministers. For the workingman, there were the shabby, budget-priced lupanars of De Bullion Street, where they occupied civic numbers 910, 912, 930, 934, 934A, 936, 948, 956, 958, 964, 966, 1016, 1020, 1020A, 1024, 1024A, 1025, 1027, ..." The list goes on.

It was a cozy arrangement, with the police and brothel owners quite literally in bed with one another: in 1919, one of the city's most prominent madams fell into a torrid love affair with the head of the police's morality squad. But the police's corruption had an inadvertent beneficial effect: it kept the prostitutes safe. Patrolling up and down the streets of the red-light district, the officers came to know the working girls and were always quick to come to their aid when customers were rough. (It helped that many of those officers were themselves regular customers.) "In the courts and in newspapers," Weintraub notes, "the euphemism for a whorehouse was 'disorderly house,' yet the proceedings in these places were generally quite orderly, even decorous."

While many of Canada's municipal leaders abhor any suggestion of decriminalization or legalization, they actively profit from prostitution by charging exorbitant licence fees for escort services and massage parlours.

"Decorous" would not describe the state of the red-light district today. Thrust into decline after the city cracked down on corruption in the 1960s and wiped out the brothels, the area is now an uneasy mix of university buildings, strip clubs, sleazy bars, trendy nightclubs, new condominiums and a housing project. In today's red-light district, prostitution is dangerous and sleazy, dominated by bedraggled, defeated women.

It's a situation common in Canada, where a striking double standard exists: while prostitution is technically legal, "bawdy houses" and public solicitation are not.* These laws are extremely vague and only selectively enforced; the result is a vast grey-market industry of escort agencies, massage parlours and call girls who operate with the tacit approval of municipal governments. At the other extreme is street prostitution, controlled by pimps and organized crime groups that traffic in abused, drug-addicted women and children. These street workers, who represent about 20 percent of Canada's prostitutes, are not only at risk for sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV, they are also preyed upon by violent men and sociopaths. In various cities, organizations that advocate for sex workers' rights have compiled "bad date" lists of men to avoid. Even more disturbing is the disappearance of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of prostitutes over the past twenty-five years. In Edmonton, at least twenty-three sex workers have gone missing. That number is over sixty in Vancouver, where a pig farmer named Robert Pickton has been charged with the murder of more than half those women.

It's tempting to dismiss the violence and drug addiction as the natural outcomes of a high-risk lifestyle, but prostitution is only high-risk because we've made it so. Consider the Netherlands. After nearly thirty years of de facto legality, the sex trade was formally legalized in 2000 when the Dutch government lifted the rarely enforced ban on brothels. Amsterdam is famous for its ancient red-light district, where women sit in red-lit windows to advertise their services. "The atmosphere is astonishingly calm," says Dan Gardner, a journalist for the Ottawa Citizen who has reported on prostitution in the Netherlands and Canada.

Close contact between police and prostitutes ensures the women's safety and pretty much eliminates the possibility of juvenile prostitution. In 2001, about a year after official legalization, sex workers in the Netherlands formed a union to protect their interests. What is most remarkable is the diversity of women in the trade. "You can't generalize. There's an enormous range of women," says Gardner. The perception in Canada is that prostitutes are forced into their work by pimps or abusive boyfriends, and Gardner admits that sort of thing does happen in the Netherlands. "But there are also women at the opposite end of the spectrum who do it because they like it," he adds. "And there's a whole lot of women in between."

There is, however, a dark side to the story of Dutch prostitution. Every year, thousands of young women from Eastern Europe and the Balkans are smuggled into Western Europe, where they are forced to repay their travel debts by becoming virtual sex slaves. Many are underage and physically abused. This underground sex industry, controlled by organized crime, has proven all but impossible for Dutch police to crack. Gardner sees in this an important lesson for Canada. "The existence of these two types of sex industries is a perfect example of why we need legalization of prostitution in Canada," he says. "We're just like the Dutch black market industry, only that's all we have."

On the street, women are beaten, robbed and raped with frightening regularity. Says Gardner: "Try to imagine that kind of violence inflicted on any other group of people and still being so quiet about it."

When it comes to Canada's attitude toward the sex trade, Gardner doesn't mince words. "Our attitude is the worst mix of moralism and hypocrisy," he fumes. "No one wants to talk about regulatory changes that would admit that we have a sex industry. But it isn't going away." While many of Canada's municipal leaders abhor any suggestion of decriminalization or legalization, they actively profit from prostitution by charging exorbitant licence fees for escort services and massage parlours. While researching a 2002 article for the Ottawa Citizen, Gardner discovered that in Vancouver, a dating-service licence costs $104 a year, whereas a licence for an escort service costs $802 a year. Dating services are required to record the names and addresses of all the people they introduce; the customers of escort services, on the other hand, are kept anonymous.

Meanwhile, on the street, women are beaten, robbed and raped with frightening regularity. "Try to imagine that kind of violence inflicted on any other group of people and still being so quiet about it," says Gardner. He's adamant that total transparency-the kind brought about only by legalization-is the only way to rectify the situation. What makes the Dutch approach so successful, he says, is that it's driven by the cities, not by the central government. Each municipality has crafted its own approach to prostitution, and best of all, Dutch policy is constantly evolving. "There are innumerable ways to go about this," he insists, adding that Canada needs to foster innovative city- and neighbourhood-based approaches to prostitution. The issue is slowly catching on: some civic leaders in Vancouver have seriously proposed creating a red-light district, and at its recent policy convention, the federal Liberal Party adopted a resolution supporting the decriminalization of prostitution.

Still, there is considerable resistance. Two years ago, the Montreal media mistakenly reported that city councillor Louise O'Sullivan had proposed the creation of six red-light districts in the city. The reaction was swift and sudden, with the mayor denouncing the mere idea of a red-light district and distancing himself from the issue completely. When asked whether she thinks that legalizing prostitution would be good for the city, O'Sullivan's response is guarded. "After that flash [of controversy]," she remarks, "I can tell you society's not ready for it in Montreal." Instead of legalization, she continues, we should focus on providing sex workers with more social workers and more readily available health care. "The police have to be sensitized," she adds. "They have to help, not just give contraventions."

"We no longer want our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our friends, our girlfriends, our lovers, in prison," declares this sign, which hung outside the former offices of Stella, a Montreal organization for sex workers' rights.


Unfortunately, that's little more than a temporary solution. What we need is a comprehensive overhaul of the way we look at prostitution. Canada's current position on sex work is deceitful: it turns its back on off-street prostitution and punishes street workers by letting them fall ever deeper into an abyss of drug addiction, abuse and death. At the very least, governments need to realize that the current laws against prostitution harm the very women they're supposed to protect, by treating them as outlaws and refusing them the help they need. Cities need to adopt a more compassionate approach, as they are beginning to do with drug addicts.

But there's still the matter of why sex work is illegal in the first place. Let's face it, prostitution will never go away. Legalizing and regulating it like any other profession would drastically reduce the potential for abuse, violence and disease, with the added bonus of taking control of the industry away from exploitative pimps and organized crime. The success of the Dutch experiment can serve as inspiration, but cities like Montreal should also look at their own pasts. Certainly, the brothel system of the 1940s was far from ideal, relying as it did on a precarious system of graft and corruption. But the women who worked in those "bawdy houses" enjoyed at least some form of security and comfort. Striking down the laws against prostitution and re-establishing brothels in areas such as Montreal's old red-light district will guarantee a standard of health and safety that no sex worker in Canada currently enjoys.

For more information, check out the following organizations: Stella, the Coalition for the Rights of Sex Workers and Amsterdam's Prostitution Information Centre.

Correction, March 27: The column originally stated that living on the avails of prostitution is illegal. In fact, it is only illegal to live on the avails of prostitution of another person. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

When not wandering our streets, Christopher DeWolf is the editor of The Urban Eye appears every second Wednesday.