Sex work activists condemn organized crime designation for bawdy-house keepers

LAW & ORDER / Conservatives target ‘the safest place to provide sex work’
Marcus McCann / National / Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Folks charged with keeping a common bawdy house are now likely to face an additional charge: being a member of a criminal gang.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet made the change — by regulation rather than by legislation. At a press conference on Aug 4, Minister of Justice Rob Nicholson announced the change, although it had been quietly enacted on July 13.

The definition of a “criminal organization” is three or more people engaged in committing “serious offences” for profit. Thanks to the cabinet fiat, “serious offences” now includes keeping a bawdy house.

Christine Bruckert, a professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa who has studied sex work, says the change in regulation could affect massage parlours, brothels, dungeons, bathhouses — even swingers’ clubs.

“It could have a significant and wide-ranging impact,” she says.

Bruckert calls the changes “a slippage in the discourse around trafficking,” where anxiety about women being trapped by international pimps is now being applied to unrelated situations.

“If you understand bawdy houses as a place where people work, it has nothing to do with a serious crime,” says Bruckert. “That’s why it’s not defined as a serious offence in the criminal code.”

Valorie Scott of Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC) agrees, comparing it to the days of Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

“How they’re going to sell this to people is human trafficking,” says Scott. “When Mulroney made [sex work] an enterprise crime, they made it about the war on drugs. They slid it in there with 26 other offences.”

But at least when Mulroney notched up the prohibitions on sex work, he did it in the house of commons, says Scott, and not behind closed doors.

Bruckert points out that those who work in bawdy houses are usually better off than those who do sex work on the street or independently.

Activists rallied on Parliament Hill in 2008 and called on the federal government to decriminalize sex work. See a video here:

“If you’re talking about a labour site, it’s the safest place to provide sex work,” says Bruckert. “You’re providing a disincentive to operate this kind of place.”

Tuulia Law of SPOC agrees.

“People seem to have this preconceived idea of brothels as dangerous or bad, but really it’s just a workplace,” says Law.

Police have repeatedly used Canada’s bawdy house law to raid bathhouses in Canada. A citywide crackdown of bathhouses in 1981 became a rallying point for gay activism in Toronto. More recent raids include Toronto’s Pussy Palace in 2000, Calgary’s Goliaths in 2002 and Hamilton’s Warehouse Spa in 2004.

Law also worries that the Conservatives’ move could affect SPOC’s charter challenge to the bawdy house law and other sex laws. A decision in that case is expected by Sept 30.


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