photo: flickr user metric_feet
When the Ontario Appeals Court ruled this week that our laws banning bawdy-houses were unconstitutional, City Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti renewed his call that Toronto establish a red-light district where brothels could be licensed to operate. Never one to shy away from controversy, Mammoliti again bravely offered the Toronto Islands as an appropriate location even after the same suggestion was widely panned last year when the sex worker case first made the news. He’s vowed to bring the issue to council, which would undoubtedly be the sexiest zoning debate of all time. But the ruling and Mammoliti’s ranting begs the question: Where do you put a red-light district?
The Toronto Islands makes sense to Mammoliti because it’s out of the way and already home to a nude beach where, “if you look hard enough, you’ll find someone without pants on.” But if you look hard enough on Toronto Islands, you’ll also find a public school, notoriously protective residents, day camps for kids and families and tourists enjoying the outdoors. If Mammoliti’s reasoning is that we want to keep the sex trade away from residential neighbourhoods, then locating it on the Islands is completely missing the point. Although, finding oneself in the midst of a crush of prostitutes commuting by ferry at rush hour does have a certain literary appeal.
His other helpful idea was to put brothels in industrial parks (so long as they aren’t in his ward). While I understand (though disagree with) Mammoliti’s impulse to hide the sex trade someplace out of the way, putting a red-light district in an industrial park is a bizarre suggestion when you think about it. What does a brothel need with the infrastructure that an industrial park offers? Are we shipping in sex workers by the truckload? Are we unloading them in crates with forklifts? Are the passionate screams of orgasmers as deafening as heavy machinery? Talk about an uninviting environment for the most intimate business on earth. It’s as if Mammoliti considers sex to be a mechanical operation best left to robots on the factory floor. Plus, I don’t have a car so how would I get there?
What about a downtown destination for all your sexiest needs? Already home to Zanzibar, The Brass Rail and scores of other sex-oriented businesses, Yonge St. between Dundas and Bloor seems like a natural fit for brothels and massage parlours. The easily accessible central location would benefit both locals and tourists looking for their fill of sexual thrills. The area could become an attraction not unlike the popular De Wallen district in Amsterdam or North Beach in San Francisco. However, area businesses may not be enthused by the idea of the label: Communication manager for the DownTown Yonge BIA Abigail Gamble says the businesses they represent would not be interested in the area being designated a red-light district though she declined to elaborate as to why.
So if nobody wants a red-light district in their backyard, where do you put the brothels? Everywhere, obviously! Red-light districts attract a whole slew of undesirable elements like organized crime and drug addiction. Emily van der Meulen, professor of criminal justice and criminology at Ryerson University, told the Toronto Star, “Generally speaking, research on red-light zones, both from academics and from sex workers, say that it’s not going to be in sex workers’ best interests.” Offended by the idea of a brothel popping up in your neighbourhood? Chances are one already exists. According to the ruling [PDF] a good 80% of sex workers already work indoors. Alan Young, one of the lawyers who presented the constitutional challenge, said, “We’re not going to see a dramatic change in the way the sex trade operates in Canada. It’s going to be fairly discreet and not in people’s faces.” Trying to pick one place to contain the sex trade is counter-productive and would only further stigmatize sex workers and their patrons.
There are bars, LCBOs, movie theatres, restaurants and a million other entertainment options located conveniently across the city. Brothels should be allowed to be distributed just as equally. Why should I have to take the subway all the way across the city if I want to buy sex?