"Erotic massage" or "body rub" parlours, known more commonly by both frequenters and detractors as "rub-and-tugs," have been a recent subject of debate in Edmonton. In January, city council enacted new bylaws intended to protect sex-parlour workers. The new laws instituted mandatory workers' rights education and safety training, and controversially, allowed massage parlours to remain open 24 hours a day.
Last week, council announced it was restoring the previous operating restriction of 7 am to 11 pm.
The reversal came after the sustained opposition from the Edmonton Police Service Vice Section and lobbying from anti-exploitation groups.
The main trouble with this flip flop was illustrated nicely, if crudely, by a friend's Facebook status late Thursday night.
"Massage parlors are only open from 7am til 11pm??? Who pays for a f***en blowjob between 7 am and 11 pm???"
While my friend was almost certainly drunk- and quite possibly trolling for some solicited sex- he was undoubtedly correct that people tend to pay for sex after-hours. Unfortunately, normal workday responsibilities, dinner with the wife and kids, and enjoying a balanced breakfast all tend to interfere with buying sex.
If johns are no longer afforded relatively safe public establishments in which to indulge themselves indoors, they will naturally turn out of doors. The street. And if men are trolling the streets at night, the nightwalkers will be there to oblige them.
One parlour owner, Star Murphy, told the Edmonton Journal she supported the operation restriction. Safety was one of her concerns.
"It's just not safe. A lot of these places are often staffed with women only."
That would seem a manageable problem. How about, like any nightclub, mandatory security workers after 11 pm? There has never been a shortage of meat-headed doormen in this city. Yet, if an owner like Murphy doesn't want to keep her doors open all night, no one is forcing her to.
Other owners have spoken out against the restriction.
"It's safer to have three girls working inside of a building than standing on the streets alone," one woman told Global Edmonton.
The Vice Unit disagrees.
"The bylaw was never intended to offer some kind of refuge for criminal activity," Detective Ken Brander explained to Global.
"If someone is advertising sex for money services, if they're screening customers, if they're supplying rooms, if they're supplying clothing, condoms, all those things, and then in return getting money for that, if they're living off the avails, all those things are criminal offences."
In other words, the new bylaws were enabling massage parlours to exploit sex workers, and "live off the avails." The Vice Unit's real issue is that "body rub centres" are really just brothels by another name. Police, perhaps surprisingly, tend to frown upon law-breaking.
Edmonton's storied rub-and-tugs became the vibrant and varied industry they are today mostly due to Canada's convoluted prostitution laws.
Prostitution itself is actually legal in Canada. But brothels, bawdy houses, pimping, and, most crucially, public solicitation are not. So, if a prostitute is offering her service privately, either by telephone or online, and engaging in a private residence or hotel room, she is within her legal right.
The trouble is that your average street prostitute isn't necessarily able or willing to start a home business. So, they turn to the street, and pimps. Another difficult reality is that picking a corner in a well-lit suburban neighbourhood will surely garner an arrest within minutes, as would hooking on Whyte Avenue on a Saturday night, or in the parking lot at West Edmonton Mall.
It's hard to blame the cops for wanting to enforce the law, and public distaste for brothels is similarly understandable. Brothels are, after all, simply a more genteel form of pimping. But if prostitution is in fact legal, it is obviously much easier to ensure the safety of sex workers within the controlled environment of a brothel, than in cars parked in dark alleys and wooded areas.
The intent of Canada's prostitution laws was not to stop prostitution- which most grown-ups realize is a fact of life- but to protect public order and decency, and to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable women.
The Willie Pickton fiasco is just one example of how current legislation has utterly failed to protect order, decency, or vulnerable women.
It would be foolish to assume that allowing bawdy houses would be some sort of prostitution panacea- it wouldn't take all of the hookers off of the corners, or do anything for the scores of underage girls currently active in the sex trade. But the more open the industry, the safer its workers.
Push prostitution out the back door, and underground, if you will. Remember, though, that prostitution only remains "underground" until dug up by a forensics team.