High above Portage Avenue near Aubrey Street, on the edge of the Wolseley neighbourhood, stands a billboard with large yellow lettering on a black backdrop, advertising the services of "Sensational Serena," an escort licensed with the City of Winnipeg.
The billboard appears to be the first of its kind in the city; police say they have never before seen an escort or sex worker advertise their services in such an open and public fashion.
'I’m a businesswoman and I’ve maintained my escort licence for a number of years now. I’m a licensed professional who provides the service of companionship to my clients' – Sensational Serena
Sgt. Rick McDougall, who heads up the Winnipeg Police Service counter exploitation unit, said although it may come as a surprise to many people, there’s no law against advertising — or even selling — your own sexual services.
"If she is offering her sexual services, then she’s perfectly within her rights to do so. It’s certainly legal to advertise or sell your own sexual services in Canada," McDougall said.
Sensational Serena, who describes herself as "Winnipeg’s professional companion," told the Free Press she’s been a licensed escort in the city for several years. Her website offers services ranging from personal and couple companionship to massages.
"I’m a businesswoman and I’ve maintained my escort licence for a number of years now. I’m a licensed professional who provides the service of companionship to my clients," Serena said, adding she purchased the billboard on April 8.
In addition to the billboard and personal website, she also has ads up on the online website Leo List, a classified website popular with sex workers that police say has largely filled the void left by Backpage when it was shut down by the U.S. government last year.
'If she is offering her sexual services, then she’s perfectly within her rights to do so. It’s certainly legal to advertise or sell your own sexual services in Canada' – Sgt. Rick McDougall
"We do reach out to individuals who are advertising on these websites to see if they are indeed selling their own sexual services. A lot of them are pretty straightforward about what they're offering," McDougall said.
The city has been licensing massage parlors and escorts since 1985, and possibly before that.
There are currently two "body rub parlours," one "escort" and one "independent escort agency" licensed in Winnipeg, a city spokesman said in a written statement. The licences are issued on an annual basis.
Serena told the Free Press she holds both the escort and independent escort agency licences; she requires one to operate her business and another to employ herself.
The city defines an escort as a person who "charges or receives a fee" for "acting as a date" or "providing personal companionship for a limited period of time."
The city's website lists a $355 annual fee for an escort licence and a $2,420 fee for an annual independent escort agency licence.
McDougall said since the federal government passed Bill C-36 (also known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act) in 2014, Winnipeg police have operated what’s known as the "Nordic model" in the city, which effectively legalizes prostitution, while criminalizing their customers.
"We no longer arrest sex-trade workers for selling their own sexual services. We do, however, arrest — for lack of a better term — pimps, or those who obtain sexual services for consideration," McDougall said.
He noted men charged with solicitation — assuming they meet certain conditions — are often eligible for a diversion program, which has shown a graduates' recidivism rate of less than one per cent.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Updated on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 at 9:48 AM CDT: Headline changed.