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End to licensing bylaw is only first step

The City of Winnipeg appears poised to end its practice of licensing businesses that provide opportunities for patrons to purchase sexual services. The decision to end the licensing provision is a good first step, but much more work needs to be done to protect the women who earn a living in this line of work.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/01/2022 (374 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The City of Winnipeg appears poised to end its practice of licensing businesses that provide opportunities for patrons to purchase sexual services. The decision to end the licensing provision is a good first step, but much more work needs to be done to protect the women who earn a living in this line of work.

Licensing of escort agencies and body rub parlours was supposed to provide safer working conditions for sex workers. In the end, the bylaw was a failure; the growth of the web-based adult service industry, combined with an indifference from government about working conditions, left sex workers just as vulnerable but perhaps more stigmatized than they were before.

City takes step toward ending escort, body rub parlour licensing

JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Repealing the bylaw would not force the 31 businesses who have such licences within Winnipeg to shut down, a city spokesperson confirmed.

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City council is one vote away from ending the municipal licensing of escort agencies and body rub parlours.

On Wednesday, the executive policy committee cast a unanimous vote to remove the adult-oriented businesses, as well as their practitioners, from the Doing Business in Winnipeg bylaw, repealing their licensing requirements. The change still requires full council approval.

Prior to the vote, several members of the Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition told EPC they want the licensing rules to come to an end, primarily so they can be treated like other types of workers. However, some fear the current proposal is destined to undermine their work.

“(This would) further enforce conditions or stigma… and (it) seeks to end demand (for our business) and our means of livelihood. We don’t want licensing and a bylaw that separates us from other businesses on a basis of stigma, control and surveillance,” said Austin, who uses they/them pronouns and did not provide their last name.

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That painful reality convinced the city’s executive policy committee to unanimously recommend to council that the licensing be stopped. A final vote at council is expected to endorse this position.

However, what will become of sex workers once licensing ends? Neither the lobbies and advocates that supported the end of the licensing provision, nor the city administrators and councillors who spearheaded this initiative, can agree on the next step.

A city report that generally supported the end of licensing suggests this change could reduce demand for the sex trade. That implies the opportunity to seek sexual services in a “licensed” facility drove demand. It is entirely unclear whether that, on its own, drives demand for these services in an age when customers and service providers have multiple online channels to connect.

Diane Redsky, executive director of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, said the bylaw allowed “pimps and traffickers” to represent themselves as entrepreneurs. Repealing the bylaw sends a message “that women and girls are not for sale.”

Sex workers had a decidedly different perspective.

Members of the Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition, an advocacy organization, told EPC they want licensing to come to an end so they can start to be viewed as regular working people, implying that legalization of sex work is the ultimate goal.

Interest in ending criminal penalties for sex work is being pursued elsewhere; a national coalition of advocacy groups launched a constitutional challenge last year seeking to strike down anti-prostitution measures in the Protection for Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre executive director Diane Redsky

Only one thing is certain: the end of the licensing bylaw is not a solution. It merely brings us back to the legal limbo that existed before it was introduced.

Buying sex is still against the Criminal Code, even though police only occasionally try to stop the practice and regularly target the women providing the services — as opposed to the men buying them — because they are out in the open. Now that it appears the licensing bylaw is about to terminated, sex workers at the very least deserve to know how they will be treated by law enforcement.

It is also essential that the city pursue other ways of protecting the women in this industry. Politicians will always be wary of fully legalizing sex work, but if the city is going to tolerate its existence, then it must do something to ensure sex workers are protected and that no one is unwillingly forced into this line of work.

Ending the licensing bylaw is a good first step, largely because it has opened a dialogue with many interested parties, including sex workers. It is essential, however, that the city follow up and look for longer-term solutions.

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