Robyn Doolittle Crime Reporter Published On Sat Oct 24 2009
A woman works Gerrard and Jarvis Sts. Oct. 21, 2009. Roadwork in the area sent most women elsewhere. TONY BOCK/TORONTO STAR Crusading clergyman. Moralizing political regimes. Undercover police stings. Each has failed to drive prostitutes out of Toronto’s unofficial red-light district. Yet on a recent Wednesday night, only two women are working the Jarvis St. corridor. The reason is surprisingly practical – roadwork. “You aren’t going to get any customers if the sidewalk is blocked,” says Ebony, a curvy 23-year-old brunette who stands alone outside the Harvey’s – “Hooker Harvey’s” – at Gerrard and Jarvis Sts. This is a pivotal time for the country’s sex industry. In the past fours years, the dozens of women in knee-high boots and thick faux-fur coats shuffling in six-inch stilettos around these downtown streets have moved elsewhere. Some have relocated to the suburbs. Others have taken mainstream jobs. And many have moved inside, soliciting clients through the Internet and classified sections of free weekly newspapers. In July, most of the remaining women left the Gerrard-Church-Carlton-Jarvis block. Hard hats replaced miniskirts and fishnets as city crews began ripping up the sidewalks. By August, construction was tearing apart Church St. Ebony prefers working outdoors. She works alone and gets to keep all the cash she earns. “A lot of them have moved to strip clubs or their homes … they find it safer,” she says of the other women. The construction should be finished by next spring. Coincidentally, it’s also around that time that a ruling is expected in a landmark constitutional challenge, being argued in Superior Court this month. Law professor Alan Young, with three former and current prostitutes, has asked a judge to strike down three provisions in the Criminal Code. The act of selling sex for money is legal, but everything surrounding that business transaction isn’t. The three provisions Young wants dissolved are soliciting in a public place, working out of a brothel (which could be a sex worker’s own bedroom) and living off the avails of prostitution. If the judge agrees, prostitution would essentially be decriminalized. Most high-end workers are expected to then move their business inside, which may mean the end of Toronto’s red-light district. Currently, penalties associated with street-level prostitution are significantly lighter than those for indoor sex work. If successful, says Young, the Crown will almost certainly appeal. If they win again, it will be up to politicians to decide how to rewrite the laws – whether to regulate the industry or ban prostitution outright. Valerie Scott, an applicant in the case, said the current laws put the workers on Jarvis in danger. “Legally, it’s safer for us to work on the street, even though physically, it’s far more dangerous. And I have to laugh at people who say, `If they decriminalize prostitution, there’ll be a brothel on my street.’ Every block in Toronto already has a brothel on it. People just don’t know it.” Street prostitution in Toronto has generally been concentrated in the east downtown core. The “High Track,” where workers earn as much as $300 a trick, is in the Jarvis and Church area. Transgendered prostitutes work in “Trannytown,” southeast of Jarvis and Wellesley Sts. Crack-addicted sex workers can be found along River, Shuter and Sherbourne Sts., and earn as little as $20 for sex acts, said a police affidavit submitted in the constitutional challenge. Det. Christopher Higgins recently led a John sweep on the Danforth that left 70 men facing charges. Most of the women who work the streets there are addicts, he said. Jarvis is one of the few areas in the city where higher-end prostitutes work outdoors. “The others work out of condo buildings all over the city. … They put an ad in classified sections or on Craigslist.” In an affidavit submitted to the Superior Court, Insp. Howie Page warned changing the laws would increase the number of brothels, he says. “It will be a free-for-all, bawdy houses will proliferate and society will be the victim,” said Page. Julia Vanderheul, who does sex worker outreach with the Bad Date Coalition, thinks it might end the Jarvis strip. “You won’t see the girls on Jarvis any more. They do think it’s safer inside.” Even though this might be the case, Ebony has no plans to leave. Tonight, without any competition she will earn as much as $1,000. Johns will pay a few hundred for an hour with her in a local hotel room. Even Ebony doesn’t plan to work the Jarvis strip much longer. She’s saving to go to school and has plans to open her own spa.