How cities 'license' off-street hookers

Dan Gardner

The Ottawa Citizen

Sunday, June 16, 2002

Licensed municipal escort agencies are supposed to keep prostitutes from working the streets. But the licences are so expensive few women can afford them and are forced to earn their living on the stroll.

Last in a four-part series

In any major Canadian city, the letter "E" in the Yellow Pages is dominated by ads for escorts. Illustrated with champagne glasses, limousines, and top hats, the ads promise "class" and "discretion." Often they say they accept all major credit cards. In some, a municipal business licence number can be found in fine print. But two words that never appear are "sex" and "prostitution."

The Ottawa Citizen

Licensed municipal escort agencies are supposed to keep prostitutes from working the streets. But the licenses are so expensive few women can afford them and are forced to earn their living on the stroll.

Officially, escort agencies have nothing to do with the sex trade. The same is true of the massage parlours discretely tucked away on city streets. Officially, escorts provide companionship and massage parlours provide massages. Officially, these businesses do not violate the Criminal Code, which is why many cities provide them with operating licences in exchange for hefty fees.

Many otherwise forthright municipal politicians cling to the official line.

"The definition of the business doesn't suggest that they are breaking the Criminal Code," insists Lynne Kennedy, a Vancouver city councillor renowned for fighting street prostitution. "They are an escort service. They say, when they come for their business licence, that people who are lonely want a dating service, they want to get together with people, they want to go out to a movie, they want to go out for dinner, they want to have somebody to take to a party. So how can we possibly say you're meeting for the specific criminal purpose of soliciting for sex?"

Statements like that anger John Lowman, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University and a critic of current prostitution laws: "What you have is deliberate blindness, wilful blindness." Almost all escort agencies and massage parlours are in the business of prostitution, he says. "Police know this. Members of the public know this. So when the politicians say they don't know it, my general reaction is that if they're that ignorant of contemporary Canadian life, they should stand aside."

What especially bothers Mr. Lowman about the official charade is that it covers up the fact that enforcement of the prostitution laws is almost exclusively focussed on low-end street prostitution.

Police only crack down on escort agencies and massage parlours if they receive complaints from the community or information that the women involved are minors or are being coerced. In effect, the off-street sex trade is legal and regulated. "People who've got enough money and who can control indoor space can buy and sell sex with impunity in this country."

This reality means most politicians who have dealt with the issue of prostitution are guilty of gross hypocrisy, Mr. Lowman says. They commonly reject calls for the legalization of prostitution on the grounds that to do so would condone the sex industry. But these same politicians not only allow more expensive, off-street prostitution to operate freely, they condone it by issuing business licences and taking a cut of the profits in the form of licensing fees.

Municipal governments may even be breaking the criminal law, says Mr. Lowman, by "living in part from the avails of prostitution."

Are Canadian cities, including Ottawa, really pimping? John Lowman has the grin of a provocateur when he says they are. But a careful reading of provincial and municipal legislation suggests the idea is not so far-fetched.

In general, cities require licences to ensure businesses obey health and safety regulations. Licence fees pay for inspectors who enforce both provincial laws and municipal bylaws.

The City of Vancouver has five relevant licence categories in its bylaws: escort services, dating services, massage parlours, "body-rub parlours," and "health enhancement centres." The regulations are clearly designed so that sex-for-money is restricted to two types of businesses: escort services and body-rub parlours.

A number of provisions make this clear. First, health enhancement centres (such as aromatherapy or reflexology businesses) are explicitly forbidden from engaging in or offering "an act of prostitution." And massage parlours are barred from allowing members of the opposite sex to attend on customers. But body-rub parlours face neither restriction.

The definition of a "body-rub" makes the reality clearer still: It "includes the manipulating, touching or stimulating by any means, of a person's body or part thereof, but does not include medical, therapeutic or cosmetic treatment given by a person duly licensed."

The telling difference between "dating" and "escort" services in the Vancouver by-law is the information they must record: Dating services are required to keep the names and addresses of both people they are introducing, while escort services are only required to record the names of service providers. That means only customers of escort services can remain anonymous.

Licence costs further expose the reality. A dating service licence is $104 a year; massage parlours, $172; health enhancement centres, $160. But an escort service licence is $802 a year and a body-rub licence is $6,527. In fact, the body-rub licence is the third-most expensive in Vancouver, after those for the horse track and the Pacific National Exhibition.

The official line also falls apart under careful questioning. Asked to explain why the body-rub and escort licences are so much more expensive than the others, Lynne Kennedy, the Vancouver councillor, said the city wanted to make them "more prohibitive." But if these are lawful businesses like any other, why would the city want the fees to be prohibitive?

If any doubt still lingers, one need only stand on the sidewalk outside Vancouver's most famous body-rub parlour and look at the enormous mural of writhing, nearly-naked women that graces the entrance.

Vancouver is far from alone in tacitly licensing prostitution. Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg all regulate and licence escort agencies, massage parlours or both, and all charge licensing fees far in excess of those levied on other businesses.

In Toronto, escort agencies are not licensed but "body rub parlours" are. Business licences cost $6,700 initially and $6,500 on renewal each year. All employees must also be licensed, starting at $192 each and $100 on renewal. By comparison, a taxi licence renewal is $870, while both pawnbrokers and "holistic centres" (such as aromatherapy spas) renew their licences for $100. There are currently 19 licensed body-rub parlours in Toronto employing 211 people. The city receives $162,000 a year on renewal fees alone.

Ontario's municipalities are required by law to set licence fees no higher than what is needed to cover the costs of law enforcement. And since unlicensed massage parlours (or "body rub parlours," in the words of the bylaws) number in the hundreds in Toronto, making bylaw enforcement difficult and expensive, this would justify a higher licence fee for body-rub parlours. But there are enormous differences between body-rub licences and those of other business. Is the cost of enforcing the body-rub regulations really more than seven times the cost of enforcing the taxi bylaws, or 65 times the cost of monitoring pawnbrokers? Does the city really spend all $162,000 it makes from body-rub licences, or is it actually making a profit? When asked this, Mark Dimuantes, a City of Toronto policy officer, replied in an e-mail only that "the city is currently working out a process for activity-based costing to more closely monitor the costs of enforcement."

In the newly amalgamated Ottawa, the old cities' bylaws governing escort agencies and massage parlours will stay in place until they are harmonized. Vanier licenses one body-rub parlour, charging $2,000 for the annual renewal, plus $150 from each worker. In the former City of Ottawa, there are five body rubs that pay $300 renewal fees. In the other cities, there are no by-laws so "the only thing that may regulate it is zoning," says Susan Jones, director of bylaw enforcement.

Both the Ottawa and Toronto bylaws are empowered by the Ontario Municipal Act. That provincial law sets out a definition of "body rub" that leaves little doubt about what is really involved: "Body rub includes the kneading, manipulating, rubbing, massaging, touching, or stimulating, by any means, of a person's body or part thereof but does not include medical or therapeutic treatment."

Monica Valliquette is an Edmonton prostitute who successfully pushed the city to allow escorts to be licensed independently, rather than requiring them to be licensed as employees of an agency. Now she and a colleague are suing the city, demanding it lower the $1,600 fee. "They are pimping us," she insists. "They're living off the avails of prostitution."

Part of the problem, she says, is that city councillors refuse to say out loud what escorts really do. Instead, they claim they are "only licensing the introduction of the service. That's like saying that they don't really licence restaurants to feed people, they just introduce people to the owner."

Ms. Valliquette says that to sweep away this polite fiction, "we wrote to all the councillors and said, hey, this is the score. We're prostitutes, we're not escorts. We don't take anybody out for dinner. We actually do all our business in the sack. Get with the program."

Police officers and bureaucrats are frank about the services escort agencies and massage parlours provide. Police typically include escort agencies and massage parlours when discussing prostitution, including those that are licensed. Officers are even careful to distinguish between therapeutic massage businesses and those offering sex. Aurel Leblanc, a staff sergeant with the vice unit of the Edmonton police, notes that his city has "over 300 massage parlours, but most of them are therapeutic. There are only 41 that are exotic massage parlours."

Mark Dimuantes, the City of Toronto policy researcher, is almost as blunt. Toronto has hundreds of unlicensed "rub-and-tugs," as he calls them, which are often charged and convicted as bawdy houses. As for the licensed body-rub parlours, "I haven't personally inspected any of those," he says, so "I don't really know what goes on in those. But I assume, you know, one can make the assumption that it's the same thing the illegal ones are doing."

All this activity violates the Criminal Code. Massage parlours offering sexual services and those who work in them can be charged under the bawdy-house laws. Escort agencies that arrange for prostitutes to meet clients violate laws against "procuring" - including the "pimping" offence of "living on the avails of prostitution." On a literal reading of the law, even the Yellow Pages and other advertising forums could be said to violate procuring laws when they carry ads for prostitution services, particularly when advertisers recruit new staff.

But in reality, charges against off-street prostitution are rarely laid. In 2000, roughly 93 per cent of all prostitution-related incidents reported by police involved street activity, despite the fact that the street trade accounts for only about 20 per cent of all commercial sex.

Even that may overstate how much off-street enforcement of the prostitution laws there is since a common source of those charges are unlicensed massage parlours. There are hundreds of such businesses in major cities like Toronto and they are often raided and charged with bawdy-house offences. But these businesses are not closed because they allow prostitution. The real issue is that they don't have municipal licences and often violate zoning regulations. In effect, this is just bylaw enforcement -- as demonstrated by the fact that licensed massage parlours are almost never busted.

Pressed for an explanation, the police typically blame a lack of resources. Bawdy house and procuring charges usually require lengthy, complex undercover operations. "In a nutshell, do we have officers to go and aggressively target perhaps lesser sections of the Criminal Code that aren't brought to our attention?" says Det. Sgt. Paul Gillespie of the Toronto police sex crimes unit. "No, we don't have the resources."

But it is apparent that there's more involved than a lack of resources. Like most people in Canada, the police, even "vice" cops, no longer feel that they should be enforcing a moral code on consenting adults. "If adults are having consensual sex," says Mr. Gillespie, "certain parts of that could be illegal under certain parts of the Criminal Code, but with the resources we've got, we don't go anywhere near that."

And it's not only the police. Few judges or prosecutors want to punish prostitution involving consenting adults. Alan Young, a professor of criminal law at Osgoode Hall who has defended prostitutes and massage parlour owners in court, says he was even told by one judge that "we don't conduct bawdy house trials in this jurisdiction." Most criminal justice officials just don't see prostitutes as criminals, Mr. Young says, nor are they eager to punish their customers.

Even if police did want to pursue unusual charges that technically fit Criminal Code requirements, they aren't likely to stick. Where charges against off-street, consensual prostitution do result in convictions, punishments are typically just light fines. "We've actually run some stings on some of these massage parlours as far as bawdy houses and everything else," says Aurel Leblanc of the Edmonton vice unit, "and we've gone through the courts and what the courts have given for sentences and what we gather from the court is they're not interested in seeing any of these charges coming through. It's consensual sex between two adults in a private place."

In the 1970s, off-street enforcement was much heavier than today, averaging four times the current number of charges. Then in 1975, charges soared when Vancouver police carried out a sweep of all main off-street venues. In 1977, Toronto police did the same after a high-profile murder in a Yonge Street massage parlour.

The result was disastrous. The police drive didn't diminish the sex trade -- it simply pushed off-street prostitution onto street corners. Cities across the country were afflicted by a huge increase in street prostitution, especially in residential neighbourhoods; Vancouver and Toronto were hit worst. With this experience, says John Lowman, "the police know damned well what will happen if they crack down on the off-street stuff."

The police also know that escort agencies and massage parlours are far safer for prostitutes than walking the streets. And they know off-street prostitution is much less likely to annoy communities than streetwalking. Aurel Leblanc notes that while Edmontonians are sometimes offended when a new massage parlour gets a licence and zoning approval, when it "is in place and running, we very seldom get any complaints."

It's not surprising, then, that police departments and city councils across Canada allow off-street prostitution to function as if it were legal. But that doesn't mean the industry is ignored. Like any legal business, off-street prostitution is regulated.


In most cities, regulation begins as soon as an application is made for a municipal licence. Not only must applicants satisfy all the usual requirements, including zoning, but in most cities the police also screen owners and employees for criminal records.

Operators who skip licensing, or get a licence for another business category, are frequently busted. These raids may result in criminal charges but they're really just bylaw enforcement.

Licensed establishments are also subject to inspection. In Edmonton, says Aurel Leblanc, "I've got three teams of detectives and usually about once a month we try to do an inspection on these massage parlours. And usually it's for bylaw things, but of course we're looking for other things also ... We check their licences, the licence of the premises. Look around for anything. Drug stuff. Just make sure that they know we're around."

Police will enforce the law if they receive community complaints. Eric Martinat says the Ottawa police had a unit dedicated to investigating off-street prostitution but it was disbanded in the mid-1990s. Now, "we respond as the complaint and information come in."

Everything changes, however, if the police discover that the employees of an off-street sex business are not consenting adults. Foreign women brought into Canada illegally and coerced into prostitution are a particular concern. So are women under the control of pimps. In addition, says Mr. Gillespie, the involvement of anyone younger than 18 "is a major priority with us no matter what the crime is."

Officially, of course, no one will say that off-street prostitution is effectively a legal, regulated industry. But a major raid on Toronto escort agencies in April was a paradoxical demonstration of exactly that.

After more than a year of investigation, 130 police officers raided a company said to be operating 68 escort agencies. One million dollars in cash was seized, along with $3 million in jewelry, luxury cars and other property. The alleged owner, David Allan, 43, was charged with numerous offences, along with his wife and brother. Mr. Allan is said to have run escort agencies in Ottawa in the 1980s.

On the face of it, the sweep would seem to suggest the police actually are enforcing prostitution laws off-street. And in the press release and news conference that followed, that's the impression the police played up. Mr. Allan's operation was one of the biggest in Canada, the police said, and they moved on it after being "tipped off" by a john.

But what the john informed them of was not the existence of the escort agencies, or the fact that they were engaged in prostitution; the police must have already known this given that Mr. Allan allegedly spent $800,000 a year advertising his businesses in the Yellow Pages. What alarmed the police was the john's statement that when he called for the services of a prostitute, the woman who arrived was just 16 years old.

A similar scenario played out in Ottawa in late April, when a series of procuring charges were laid against men running an escort agency. The investigation was triggered by tips that the men were employing women as young as 14. In this case, the information came from social services outreach workers, but very often, adult prostitutes alert police to minors in the trade.

Both busts demonstrated something that is true in most of Canada most of the time: If off-street prostitution only involves consenting adults, does not violate bylaws, and does not annoy neighbours, the authorities will leave it alone. Only if these informal regulations are ignored is the criminal law enforced.

It's a reasonable, pragmatic approach. But the hypocrisy involved rankles some. "We're willing to sanction and profit from, with licence fees, the sex trade that takes place off the street where it's not visible, and then we have a completely different standard in terms of what goes on on the street," says Libby Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver's downtown eastside.

In part, Ms. Davies is annoyed that some people are getting away with acts that other people are punished for -- and that the dividing line between the two is money.

More importantly, Ms. Davies worries that the enforcement of the criminal law against bottom-end street prostitution puts women at far greater risk of violence. "When it's moved away from residential areas, the more the women are in isolated areas, there's less complaints. But that also increases their risk in being out there, with poor lighting, not much traffic activity, people not walking along the street. So there's a corresponding increase in their vulnerability."

But other politicians won't discuss even discuss decriminalization because, they say, to do so would condone prostitution -- at the same time that high-end prostitution is tacitly condoned across the country. "Why do we have one standard for the sex trade that's taking place" off-street, Ms. Davies asks, while "on the street we're basically victimizing women who are already at risk?"

With 54 women vanished from the streets of her riding, Ms. Davies insists "the federal laws need to be reviewed." To that end, she has brought a motion before the House of Commons, but she knows she's asking a great deal from her fellow parliamentarians.

"I think it does require some bold political leadership to at least begin to have an honest discussion about Canada's prostitution laws and the hypocrisy that exists and the double standards."

Dan Gardner is a senior writer.



Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen

The law has hounded hookers out of safe areas and into dark alleys, making them easy prey for murderers-June 15, 2002

 Courting death: Part 2-The law has hounded hookers out of safe areas-June 15, 2002



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