Turn on the red light

Scott Dagostino gets under the sheets to find out what local queers and sex workers think of legalized prostitution and red-light districts

[originally printed in fab issue 411 – November 10, 2010]

One wouldn’t expect a music festival about religion to include prostitution, but one of the highlights of the current White Light Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center is Roysten Abel’s The Manganiyar Seduction, inspired by Amsterdam prostitutes’ display windows. The four-storey set is composed of 36 stacked boxes, draped in red curtains, containing dozens of singers and musicians. “One of my favourite places used to be the Red Light District in Amsterdam,” Abel explains in The Wall Street Journal. “It was the most theatrical space in the world.” That same spirit led to Church Street being bathed in red light for the 2007 Nuit Blanche exhibit that showcased sexy dancers in storefronts throughout the Village. Organizers billed it as “a grand erotic fantasy.”

No stranger to the theatrical, Nina Arsenault, author and star of The Silicone Diaries and a former sex worker, has a similarly grand vision for a sexual neighbourhood. “My fantasy red-light district would include highly designed interiors for strippers and whores to work in,” she muses. “Clean, sleek, glamorous, lots of mirrors and hallucinatory lighting — that works for me. I could see situating the whole area east of Cherry Beach, creating a newly developed waterfront.”

A red-light district is a thrilling concept for many sex workers. “I’d like to see a red-light district for sure. Some cabaret-style theatres, live music lounges, restaurants and public artworks, so Toronto can show off all the talent it has to the world,” says Jay, who dubs himself “Charm & Intensity” on rentboy.com. “Also, it would have a big, gaudy, well-equipped theme-room hotel, so I could do clients Egyptian-style or go medieval on them.”

Nina Arsenault dreams big

Glamorous planning aside, Arsenault also recognizes the need for “rundown divey places to work, as I think that holds a certain appeal, too. But to truly compete with Amsterdam as a sex-tourism spot, we would need to legalize certain quantities of drug use within the redlight district.”

That’s a fair link to make, as the legal history of prostitution in Ontario mirrors the battle here to legalize marijuana. Just as there was uncertainty around the legality of toking after former justice minister Martin Cauchon introduced a 2003 bill that decriminalized possession of less than 30 grams, Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice ruled in September that the Criminal Code provisions relating to prostitution make sex-trade workers needlessly unsafe. While sex work has always been technically legal, the provisions prevent communication for the purpose of prostitution, working in a brothel or “bawdyhouse,” as well as a number of other things that are required to actually get the job done.

University of Toronto law professor Brenda Cossman explains that the applicants and the federal Crown are currently negotiating a moratorium to the court decision that will expire at the end of November. “The government will totally drag their heels. It’ll take forever for it to go all the way up to the Court of Appeal,” says Cossman. She says that unless there’s leadership from government or a massive outcry from the public, “prostitution is going to be in this weird kind of legal Never Never Land while the case is still in play.”

This frustrates Jay, who says, “The city is crazy not to want to tax all the trade that is already going on. A red-light district in Toronto would mean tens of millions of dollars a year in tourism dollars for the city and lots of touristsector jobs for people like entertainers, waiters and hotel staff. Finally there’d be a hot, sexy reason to come to Ontario in the middle of winter.”

Peter Bochove, owner of Spa Excess bathhouse, spent decades fighting to overturn archaic bawdyhouse laws and insists people already have a sexy reason to visit. While he agrees that “sex tourism is wonderful and I’m all in favour, I don’t really think it will make a huge difference to Spa Excess. A prostitute at a bathhouse is like a hamburger at a banquet. Who needs you?” he laughs. “I am, of course, hugely in favour of the total decriminalization of prostitution, but I think zoning it and legalizing it is another issue.”

Todd Klinck, co-owner of Goodhandy’s, completely agrees. “I am flat-out against the concept of a red-light district,” he says. “It’s just a fantasy.” Like Bochove, he draws a sharp line between the decriminalization of prostitution, which would immediately improve the lives of sex workers, and the legalization of prostitution, which comes with taxes and government regulation — it would create as many problems as it solves. For starters, Klinck says, “Number one: where do you put it? No one wants it in their neighbourhood.”

David Wootton, manager of the Church Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area, doesn’t argue with that. “Sex is definitely part of our district,” he says, “but I know that we have members trying to encourage traffic seven days a week.” If Church St. was zoned as a red-light district, he says, the non-sexual businesses would die out. “We’re trying to have a bit of both,” Wootton says.

Cossman is torn on the idea of legalization, saying, “The LCBO is the most profitable thing the government does — selling booze. We could have sex work like that.” Cossman also recognizes the reality that “the city could find ways to zone it out to Scarborough.” Klinck says the idea of uprooting sex workers and sending them off to some industrial parkland, even a glamorous one east of Cherry Beach, is ridiculous and appalling.

The most important consideration, says Bochove, “is the life of the sex trade worker. Only a fool will tell you it won’t make the sex worker safer if he or she can work inside. It will reduce the nuisance value, take the pimp as he currently exists out of the picture, and allow women to hire bodyguards legally.”

“Escorts make more money the more independent they are,” explains sex trade worker Mark Gordon. “While changes to the law would be welcome, they would mostly benefit women. Men do not generally have the same safety concerns, so we do not stand to benefit in the same way from working in brothels.”

“I personally think it would be safer and more discreet if sex workers were permitted to work from private studios or from their own homes, “ says sex worker Billy Bronco. “Having a red-light district would only make it less discreet, way trashier, and it would also make things easier to control by authorities. I’d rather keep it on the downlow as I have been doing.”

Sex trade worker Jeremy Feist of jeremyfeistxxx.com, however, still likes the idea. “The closest I’ve ever come to working in a brothel was working as a stripper, which, let’s face it, is pretty much the same thing. If you think that strippers aren’t letting guys suck them off in the backrooms, then are you in for a surprise.” He jokes that prostitution should be not only legalized but sponsored. “Would it kill Starbucks to put one in a sex club, already? Whores need lattes too, ya know,” he laughs. “But really, as long as you have security set up in there and you make sure that none of the guys or girls are being taken advantage of, then I can see a brothel helping to dispel some of the stigma associated with sex workers and being incredibly benefi cial to Toronto’s tourism industry.”

“Just decriminalizing it creates tourism,” notes Klinck. “It doesn’t have to be in a fancy package like Disneyland with red lights; it can be just having a city where people know they can come and order in from their hotel and not get busted. Let people know that Toronto is a free city.”

Art gallery owner Kristyn Wong-Tam is the newly elected city councillor for Toronto Centre-Rosedale and, as it happens, the creator of the 2007 Nuit Blanche reimagining of Church St. as a red-light district. Wong-Tam, after seeing Amsterdam’s attempt to divorce organized crime from its legal red-light district firsthand, says, “I came back to Toronto no longer enamoured by the idea.” But she agrees with Klinck: “I would like to see Toronto portrayed to the world as a grownup city that is laissez-faire in its social and liberal leanings. We should be very avant-garde in how we treat social issues. I’m very sex-positive, and I know we’re not going to be able to remove elements of commerce when it comes to sex. I think that consensual sex work between adults should be left alone. It’s an issue of workers’ rights.”

“It’s time to treat sex as the great, exciting, feel-good thing that it is, not as something you hide or punish,” says Jay, who’s cheerfully backed up by sex worker, pornstar and current fab cover boy Ryan Russell of ryanrussellxxx.com. “Putting every kind of sex worker in one district would be insane,” he laughs. “I’m not going out to some area to hustle. Are you kidding me?” Especially with guys working online now, Russell says, “It’s crazy to imagine boxing all this subversive quality within a structure. It would be like going to La Cage Aux Folles. It’s a drag show, but not a real drag show.”

“Toronto is already a place to come and have sex and a really fun, hot time,” Russell says. “Instead of trying to create a place, we should create an identity. The whole city can be a red-light district.”

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About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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