Last month, the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s prostitution laws because they breed risky working conditions. What is it really like to be an escort in this city? We asked a longtime Toronto madam.
In December, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled to strike down federal prostitution laws on the grounds that they violated the Charter rights of sex workers, and gave the government one year to amend them. Currently, selling sexual services is legal, but people are not allowed to negotiate in public with a potential client, run a brothel, or be financially supported by a prostitute’s earnings (this doesn’t just apply to pimps and madams, but also drivers, bodyguards, and phone operators).
Proponents of the current laws say they keep prostitution away from public spaces and discourage women from entering a trade that exploits and endangers them. But many advocates for sex workers say otherwise. They believe prostitution in itself is not risky or exploitative, but the law creates unsafe conditions.
“The most legal form of sex work [is] actually the most dangerous,” explains Valerie Scott, legal co-coordinator for the Sex Professionals of Canada and one of three applicants who brought the case to the Supreme Court. Sex workers are safest when they can work in groups, in their own homes or a safe house (referred to as incalls), and employ security. When these activities are criminalized, many sex workers are forced into outcall work (going to a client’s place), which can put them in dicey situations.
The court’s decision will affect the legal standing and the day-to-day operations, safety, and well-being of Canadian sex workers. To get more insight on how they felt about the decision, The Grid set out to find a woman in the industry to share her perspective.
This was tricky: Sex work is governed by legal restrictions and social stigma. Workers are generally reluctant to talk to the press, for fear of scrutiny from the police or friends and family they’re not “out” to. Some worry they could lose housing, other forms of employment, or custody of their kids. I cold-called about 50 escorts—using online classified postings to find them—and got the expected number of hang-ups. A few women spoke to me briefly about the laws, and all said the legislation hurt them, but all declined to go on record.
Finally, I made contact with a woman I’ll identify as Madam M. She is a former escort and now a den mother for a safe house, a space where escorts can operate with privacy and protection. Madam M’s safe house is drug-free, something she’s proud of.
A few nights after our initial conversation, I met Madam M at her at her safe house, a discreet apartment located in a Toronto suburb. She was wary of speaking on the record—so some details here have been withheld to protect her privacy—but had strong opinions that she wanted to air.
In her own words, here are four things she thinks people should know about sex work and what decriminalization might mean for her and other Toronto escorts.
› 1. Most people don’t plan for this life.
“I started as a burlesque entertainer when I was 21 and on the run from an abusive ex. I invested in retail clothing stores and did well for myself. Unfortunately, my partnerships went sour, and I fell back into the adult industry and started over from scratch.
At one point, I decided to get a job in a massage parlour. I had no clue that this job was more than massage! I cried for a couple of days, but then just pulled up my big-girl panties, wiped off my tears, and got to work. I ended up becoming the manager and I learned a lot about women and their circumstances.
The only issues I had working with parlours were that we were constantly a target for robberies and the police. Cops were always ticketing the spas for doing more than massage. So I needed to find another angle before I ended up in jail.
I started escorting as an independent. Escorts got top dollar then, and only a couple dozen other girls posted ads [in newspapers], so there wasn’t too much competition. Unlike with massage parlours, police didn’t really bother independent sex workers, as long as you kept your work discreet and out of the eye of the public. I’m guessing they saw it as a victimless crime.
Over time, other women started coming to me and asking if they could work with me. I never intentionally tried to be a madam. It just happened. I personally was happy to work alone, but a lot of them were in bad situations, so I tried to help them. Escorting saved my life and gave me the freedom to be my own person.
Word got around, and within a month or so, I had 17 ladies under my wing. Since then I have helped many male, female, and transgender workers in the business.
I’ve taught escorts how to gain additional income and finish their degrees in law, nursing, and social work. It was extremely necessary to have a safe environment for them that was drug-free. There was nowhere else for a lot of these workers to go. Being a street hooker was the only other option.
Our economy sucks! There is no way someone can afford to live on today’s salary or government assistance. It forces people to steal, beg, work under the table, or become a hobo. Good people come to me and beg for work. Trust me, the government brought this upon themselves a long time ago by not regulating rents or increasing salaries.
Not all sex workers are on crack and giving their money to a pimp. Some are just homeless and hungry. I hired a girl who was about to be thrown out in the street with her kids. No other agency would hire her because she wouldn’t do party calls, which are calls where you are expected to do drugs with the client, or bareback sex. The day she started, she made $300. She sat on the bed and bawled her eyes out and thanked me.
We went to the grocery store and bought groceries, a birthday present for her son, and some KFC for the kids. Since then, she caught up on her rent and hasn’t gone hungry since. It’s not what you do but how you do it and who you are as a person. They say don’t judge someone till you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Everyone has their reasons.”
› 2. The laws make the work more dangerous.
“Solicitation allows you to verbalize the services you offer. But with the laws against it, workers have to sell their time, not their services. That leads to confusion and ends in confrontation.
Clients expect different things. So if an escort decides not to do unprotected sex or refuses to French kiss, the clients then may get angry and demand their money back after they’ve already performed or they may just rape the escort until someone stops them, or until they are done. These laws promote these types of behaviours and I’m not about it!
I’ve had to physically throw guys out [of my safe house], putting my own life at risk, because they were forcing themselves on ladies because we weren’t able to set ground rules before they started. When I’d question them, they would say they paid for the service, and that they thought they could do whatever they wanted within the time they bought.
Because of the laws around prostitution, escorts are afraid to go to the cops. Thieves go after you because they don’t believe you’ll ever call the cops. Even if you have cameras up, the criminals know that the odds of you showing that tape to the cops are slim.
When I started out as a madam in my mid-20s, I was robbed at gunpoint several times. I met a cop who was concerned about my safety, and he gave me tips on how to stay safe.
Then, a couple of years ago, three young offenders broke into our apartment and held everyone hostage at gunpoint for several hours. Thank god I was able to see them [remotely] on my surveillance cameras and I called the police myself. Luckily, two officers were in a nearby building. They were able to attend to the call within five minutes.
Due to the fact that the prostitution laws were being debated in the courts at that time, the police released us without any charges. The gunmen were arrested and charged, and the apartment was checked for underage workers, drugs, and weapons. I passed that with flying colours. But as a result, we’ve lost that apartment and my cameras were taken away. It’s several years later and I’m still going to court for that matter.
If the soliciting law was permanently removed, and escorts were able to help set the new rules, we wouldn’t be as scared to report sex offenders, thieves, drug dealers, and any of the other criminals who target us. The crime rate in areas where we work would go down, and these murders and senseless crimes would be reduced because the criminals would be afraid of getting caught.
Don’t get me wrong! I don’t blame the police. They are just following the law. But when sex workers have no rights, we become really vulnerable.”
› 3. Sex workers are punished at every turn.
“A couple years ago, Craigslist removed its adult services section, which most independent escorts used to advertise for free. As a result, a lot of escorts were forced to use Backpage [a global classifieds website] or newspapers for advertising, but those ads cost double to triple the amount of a non-adult ad. A lot of escorts couldn’t afford it or they had no credit cards to post ads online, so they either had to get pimps or they became homeless.
Ads for escorts shouldn’t cost double the amount of other ads. The competition is at least 600 times greater than it was before online ads. Now escorts are making $40 per call after expenses, if they’re lucky. When you are spending that much on advertising, you can never get ahead.
There’s a lot of fear in this industry. Escorts don’t just fear criminals—we fear getting arrested, and we fear being judged by family members, friends, and the public. I believe that if we had the support of the government, a lot of these issues would be drastically reduced.”
› 4. Red-light districts are not the answer.
“I don’t agree with the idea of having red-zone districts in Canadian cities. All it will do is bring in escorts from other countries. I would never publicly register or work for the government, and neither would my colleagues. All the existing local escorts would want to stay discreet, so they would hide deeper in the woodwork, where they would be in even more danger. In my eyes, if the government is creating a red-zone district, you’re back to controlled pimping.
If prostitution is decriminalized, there should be a system that allows escorts to anonymously and voluntarily register themselves as a sex-trade worker, if that makes the government feel better. Escorts should have the option to operate like other businesses. If escorts can negotiate, set down their ground rules, and have security cameras, phone operators, and drivers, then [shady] clients will understand they are dealing with a legit business and they will know that if they get out of line they can be charged.
[Then there is another system that people are talking about] where the johns get charged instead of the escorts, and I think that’s unfair. Good clients should have rights, too. Ninety per cent of our clientele are wonderful, caring people. They just have a silly fetish, want a quickie before going to work, or sometimes [are looking for] a more passionate encounter. Whatever the reason, decent, loyal clients who pay for a service shouldn’t be terrified of being exposed by police.
There should be a separate division of law enforcement that does outreach to sex trade workers and clients. It should be accessible, and not just available on a website. The 911 service should offer text messaging.
People have a right to be safe and sex workers deserve to have a voice. Any new laws that come in should help us do our jobs safely and productively, while also allowing us to remain discreet about our work.”
HOW CANADA COULD REGULATE PROSTITUTION
The Supreme Court gave Parliament 12 months to establish new legislation, or else prostitution will be decriminalized altogether. Canadian lawmakers and advocates are currently debating several models for sex work. Here are a few options.
THE NORDIC MODEL
Used in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, and supported here by Conservative MP Joy Smith, this would legalize the act of selling sex, but make it illegal to purchase it, thus criminalizing the client. With this approach, pimps and traffickers are also targetted.
Proponents say: This will decrease the demand for prostitution while allowing sex workers to report crimes and work with law enforcement.
Opponents say: Valerie Scott, of Sex Professionals of Canada, calls the model “paternalistic.” In Sweden, safety procedures such as working in groups, distributing condoms, or keeping “bad-date books” are discouraged, while anyone employed by a sex worker, like a driver or accountant, can be charged for living on the avails of prostitution. A 2004 Swedish ministry of justice report found that the number of clients had decreased under the model, but a higher proportion were violent.
THE AMSTERDAM MODEL
Another possibility is the creation of designated prostitution neighbourhoods, or red-light districts (a model promoted by Toronto city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti), similar to the setup in Amsterdam.
Proponents say: Regulating prostitution into red zones would protect citizens by keeping the trade out of residential and commercial areas, where it would affect property values and neighbouring businesses.
Opponents say: Many sex workers are opposed to the requirement that they register with the government and submit to HIV testing. This could be leveraged by clients to demand unprotected sex (a john might refuse to wear a condom with a worker who has tested HIV-negative). This approach could also involve high licensing fees for brothel owners and street-based workers, which would make them vulnerable to organized crime. Scott adds that “legalized red-light sex ghettoes are a form of segregation, [and] all forms of segregation are isolating and wrong.”
THE NEW ZEALAND MODEL
There are no red-light zones or public registries in New Zealand, and sex workers have the legal right to form collectives, work for brothels, or hire employees. Brothel owners are licensed by a district court and comply with standard business zoning.
Proponents say: Standard labour legistlation covering occupational health and saftey standards is applied to the industry. A special tribunal hears disputes between sex workers and their employers.
Opponents say: Family and religious groups in New Zealand feel that the lack of special zoning for the sex trade has introduced street-based prostitution into commercial areas frequented by children, and has increased noise and litter in certain neighbourhoods.
› According to a 1996 Department of Justice study, street work accounted for no more than 20 per cent of prostitution in Canada, but was responsible for 94 per cent of the Criminal Code charges against sex workers and clients.
› Street-based sex workers are 60 to 120 times more likely to be murdered than any other workers.
› Aboriginal and transgender women are overrepresented among street-based sex workers, making them especially vulnerable to violence and arrest.