Inspection, Policing, and Racism: How Municipal By-Laws Endanger the Lives of Chinese Sex Workers in Toronto

By Lam, Elene | Canadian Review of Social Policy, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Inspection, Policing, and Racism: How Municipal By-Laws Endanger the Lives of Chinese Sex Workers in Toronto


Lam, Elene, Canadian Review of Social Policy


Introduction

Public debate on the laws and regulations pertaining to sex work has ensued since before living memory and it continues today. Radical feminists describe sex workers' experiences in terms of sexual violence and psychological harm, which are intrinsic to prostitution (Farley & Kelly, 2000; O'Neill, 2001). They advocate criminalizing the client and third parties in the sex trade, and see the provision of sexual services as a form of gender-based violence toward women, and a sign of their oppression and exploitation (Coy, 2012; Jeal & Salisbury, 2007; Jeffreys, 2009). In Canada, the Conservative government pursued the course of abolition. In 2014 it introduced the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which began the criminalization of the client in the sex trade. The Act also continued to criminalize third parties as well as most sex trade activities, even after the Supreme Court had ruled (in Bedford v. Canada(AG)) that the three Criminal Code provisions (prohibitions on keeping a bawdy-house and on living on the avails of, and communicating for the purposes, of prostitution) were unconstitutional because they violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (L. Casavant & D. Valiquet, 2014; POWER and PIVOT, 2014).

Sex workers, individually and in their alliances - such as academic, public health, and human rights organizations - challenge the assumption that work in the sex industry is inherently exploitative, and that sex workers are victims (Clamen, Gillies, & Salah, 2013). They believe, rather, that criminalizing sex work perpetuates stigma and discrimination against sex workers, violates their human rights, and increases their physical, economic, and social vulnerability (Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, 2005; PIVOT Legal Society, 2009, NSWP, 2014; van der Meulen & Durisin, 2008). These advocates call for the repeal of all legislation that criminalizes sex work. They also suggest that decriminalization is "a shift from the status quo, where sex workers are subject to extreme levels of violence and social marginalization, to a society where sex workers are empowered to create safe and dignified working conditions" (PIVOT Legal Society, 2009, p.9), and where their labour rights can be protected (van der Meulen, 2012).

This paper will take up the concerns of mobilized sex workers by exploring the health and safety issues of sex workers working in indoor businesses. The research and discussion so far has primarily focused on the criminal aspects of sex work. Municipal regulations and bylaws, however, are seldom studied or included in policy-making discussion and debates. The research of PIVOT Legal Society (2009) shows that tens of thousands of people work in escort agencies, bawdy-houses, body-rub parlours, massage parlours, strip clubs, and dating services that are registered as legitimate business establishments across Canada. While some research studies have enquired into the impact of municipal regulations on escort companies, body rub centres, and strip clubs in Canada, there is little understanding of how sex work in businesses such as massage parlours (that are not identified as entertainment establishments) that employ migrants is impacted by municipal law.

Another aspect of sex work that has received little focus so far is the realities for particularly vulnerable and marginalized sex workers. For example, very limited research has been done on sex workers who are racialized and migrants, and therefore, particularly vulnerable because of racism, language barriers, and social isolation (Kempadoo, 2001; Migrant Sex Workers Project, 2015). Researchers have found that migrant, especially Asian-born immigrant, women in North America face more challenges and a greater risk of violence because of their citizenship, immigration status, and social isolation, and the language barrier. They are less likely to use sexual/reproductive health services (Goldenberg, S. …

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