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Legalized sex trade would swat municipalities

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A woman holds a sign at a Toronto rally calling for the protection of sex workers.

MARK BLINCH / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

A woman holds a sign at a Toronto rally calling for the protection of sex workers.

If you're a sex-trade worker, human rights advocate or a citizen with a libertarian streak, the Supreme Court of Canada's decision to strike down the nation's prostitution laws amounts to an early Christmas gift.

If you're a social conservative or otherwise morally opposed to the idea of exchanging money for sex, Friday's unanimous decision -- which declared bans on brothels, solicitation and living off the avails of prostitution unconstitutional -- is nothing short of a major setback.

Most people sit somewhere in the middle of the debate. As much as conscientious Canadians can't stand the idea of sex-trade workers becoming victims of violence due to antiquated laws, they also aren't crazy about the idea of a legal brothel opening up between the 7-Eleven and the three-for-one pizza joint.

If the Canadian sex trade is fully legalized, as it very well may be next year, prostitution will replace cellular towers and new condo developments as the ultimate NIMBY issue for Canadian cities.

This is because the Supreme Court, in its laudable effort to protect vulnerable women, has just tossed a thermonuclear hot potato into the lap of every municipality in the nation -- the question of how to regulate a sex trade nobody, including the well-intentioned harm-reduction types, want to see in their backyards.

The federal Conservatives have been given a year to come up with a brand-new set of laws governing the nation's sex trade. If they choose not to do so, prostitution in Canada effectively will become legal.

What that means is every Canadian municipality will be confronted with a variety of regulatory headaches. What areas would be zoned for prostitution? What sorts of hours would legal brothels -- which could simply be one woman or man, working out of his or her own apartment -- be allowed to keep?

Would there be limits on the numbers of brothel employees? What sort of signage would be allowed to advertise the services on offer? What role would a city play in licensing these establishments? What penalties could the city face for refusing to regulate the sex trade at all?

The cash-strapped City of Winnipeg, to name but one example, is in no way looking forward to the prospect of regulating such a complex and controversial industry.

"Speaking personally, I don't think this is something the city would want to get into regulating," said St. Vital Coun. Brian Mayes, chairman of council's protection and community services committee, which would wind up with the sex-trade file if prostitution is fully legalized.

To be clear, the city wouldn't be getting into a new industry. Winnipeg already regulates the sex trade by licensing four body-rub establishments, the so-called massagists who work within them and escorts who work in a variety of locations.

In 2014, massagists and escorts working in Winnipeg must pay a $263 licensing fee, which covers the cost of keeping tabs on the whereabouts of these workers, who by and large are women. The city also charges more than $4,000 for the right to operate a body-rub parlour, which is not allowed to imply sexual services are on offer.

If required to regulate a fully legal sex trade, the same cost-recovery principle would presumably apply. The question is whether the most vulnerable, legal sex-trade workers -- adult women suffering from addictions and mental illnesses -- would submit to licensing or pay the accompanying fee.

There's a legitimate fear the legal sex trade would simply create an underground economy for cheaper, unregulated sex. And a legal sex trade would not immediately eradicate underage prostitution, which in Winnipeg primarily victimizes aboriginal kids.

In theory, a legal adult sex trade would free up police resources to combat the sexual victimization of youths and children. But some organizations that work with teens at risk are not convinced of this result.

A legal sex trade runs the risk of legitimizing exploitation, said Tammy Christensen, executive director of the Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre, which works with kids at risk in the North End.

"People believe this lifestyle is a choice. We know from the people we work with that isn't the case," she said, stating the average sex-trade worker is forced into prostitution by the age of 13.

Many aspects of the Supreme Court decision are laudable. It make no sense to prevent sex-trade workers from hiring protective bodyguards, assessing their safety by talking to clients or working in a safe environment, such as their home.

The danger is the responsibility to protect sex-trade workers will be downloaded completely to municipalities, which struggle to deliver existing services. Right now, the City of Winnipeg isn't up to the task.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2013 A8

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott.

Bartley appears every second Wednesday on CityTV’s Breakfast Television. His work has also appeared on CBC Radio and in publications such as National Geographic Traveler, explore magazine and Western Living.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives
Email: bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

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