Thursday, March 11, 1999
While the city gropes for a coherent policy on street prostitution, sex workers just want to be left alone
The world oldest profession is causing new headaches at city hall, where councillors can't seem to agree on whether street prostitution is a crime, a nuisance or just another business.
Meanwhile, sex workers have a simple if radical catch-all solution: let us work out of home like any other freelancer looking to use cheap, safe office space.
Adding urgency to the debate is the danger facing those who sell sex on the streets. In two weeks, Marcello Palma is scheduled to appear in a Toronto courtroom to set a date for his trail on three counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of three street prostitutes in May, 1996. In the past three years, five other sex workers have been murdered, the cases unsolved.
The mega-council unlike previous city councils has neither a task force nor an overall plan devoted to prostitution. Instead, there's a variety of competing options on how to deal with hookers, ranging from legalization to harsher penalties.
Sitting in the dilapidated offices of Street Health, a small city-funded service, prostitute/activist Beth Wolgemuth scoffs at the latest proposals. Probably the only working girl in Toronto with a Master's degree in anthropology from Syracuse University, Wolgemuth espouses a rather upbeat attitude towards prostitution, calling it "liberating" and "just a job."
As such, she doesn't see the need to throw hookers in jail or impound johns' cars the latter proposal okayed by city council last fall and currently being reviewed by the province.
Forty years old and a sex worker for the past 21 years, Wolgemuth doesn't support decriminalization either, an option the former City of Toronto council endorsed and that some mega-councillors are trying to revisit.
Wolgemuth also opposes so-called alternative measures, such as "john schools" and "jane school." Such schools, which made their Canadian debuts in Toronto, divert hookers and their clients from courtrooms in exchange for listening to lectures.
Wolgemuth and other sex trade activists support only one proposal that's been put forward at city hall. That is: lifting laws that prevent prostitutes from working from their own homes. The catch is that sex trade workers don't want this at-home cottage industry to be regulated something that's even prodecrim councillors find unacceptable.
With sex trade workers determined to maintain their independence and councillors equally determined to control hookers' activities, there should be frustration all around as the city tries to conceive a coherent prostitution policy.
Kara Gillies smirks when she's told High Park councillor Chris Korwin-Kuczynski has brothels on his mind again. A prostitute and former outreach worker with Maggie's, a sex-worker resource centre, Gillies is amused by councillors K-K's enthusiasm for a legal sex palace on the lakefront.
"He beams from ear to ear when he talks about this," says Gillies, speaking to students at a University of Toronto sexual health forum.
Korwin-Kuczynski helped convince the old Toronto city council to vote for decriminalization in 1995 a decision that was squashed flat by then justice minister Allan Rock. Councillor K-K recently revived his decrim campaign and has begun writing letters to federal officials demanding to know when they plan on moving on the prostitution issue.
"If the feds are not going to decriminalize, how are we going to get prostitutes off the streets of Toronto?" he says in a phone interview.
The councillor would like to see "a zone of tolerance" established in which "a couple of apartment buildings" could be used "for activity to take place."
Rooms could be fitted with panic buttons, Korwin-Kuczynski continues. Hookers could get regular medical check-ups and the profession would be regulated and taxed.
"With the new city, there's tons of land to put this into place," he adds.
One problem with K-K's plan might be finding willing staff for such an operation. The thought of regulation and accompanying health-checks and inspections is "downright insulting," Gillies tells her U of T audience. She says health checks would lead to greater risk of disease because johns might assume the hookers were free of sexually transmitted disease and stop using condoms.
"I'm opposed to red-light districts," says Wolgemuth. "Most prostitutes would rather work at home or from a rented place. They prefer to have control over their environment and control how many clients they see."
Schools For Hate
Wolgemuth's no fan of alternative sentencing, either. She says john and jane schools spread "dangerous myths" by telling clients that prostitutes are "walking vectors of disease."
Anastasia Kuzyk, a founding member of SWAT (Sex Workers Alliance of Toronto), goes further, blasting these organizations as "schools of hate" where "johns are taught to hate prostitutes."
Founded in March, 1996, john school has seen 2,000 men go through the program. North York councillor Judy Sgro, a former co-chair of the now defunct Metro Task Force on Street Prostitution, strongly backs john school. She points to its growing popularity with other municipalities as proof that the program works. Eleven cites, including Edmonton, Calgary and Niagara Falls, are in the process of setting up their own, says Sgro.
Sgro opposes legalization, calling it "another form of abuse" and sees john school, and an accompanying jane school program called Streetlight, founded in March, 1997, as humane alternatives to decrim and jail.
Councillor Frances Nunziata (York Humber), however, thinks sex trade enthusiasts are getting off too easy. In 1998, she spearheaded a motion asking the province for the right to seize and sell vehicles belonging to johns. Council okayed the motion last October, with some changes. (The original would have allowed cops to impound cars upon arrest. It was amended so that johns would have to be convicted first.) It's up to the province now, so Toronto likely won't learn more until after a spring election, says Nunziata.
Sex trade activists think Nunziata's motion is nuts. Wolgemuth questions whether the city "really wants to impose such a draconian penalty" for the relatively minor offence of soliciting sex.
Having rejected legal regulation, alternative sentencing and increased penalties, Gillies says what the city should really do is partially decriminalize, by convincing the feds to dump "bawdy house" laws that prevent hookers from working at home.
A federal task force report on prostitution, released last December, recommended exactly this approach, Gillies points out. At-home brothels would allow prostitutes to set their own hours and working conditions without shoving them off into whore houses at the edge of the city.
Downtown councillor Kyle Rae, who rejects city-run brothels, supports the idea of a cottage industry of at-home hookers. He thinks sex workers are kidding themselves, however, if they think they can evade the kind of health and safety regulation that would come with any form of decriminalization.
Sex activists "can't have it all," he says. If they insist that prostitution is a business, they should be willing to put up with regulations.
"I hear the same from other city businesses. It's the typical reaction. Businesses don't want to be regulated."
Created: March 28, 2000
Last modified: January 31, 2001
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