Sex Work in Toronto: Third Location Report

We’re considering possible locations for gameplay: here’s the third.

Street prostitution in Toronto was concentrated around Jarvis and Wellesley, Kingston Rd. and Parkdale (Crawford, 2009). However, police raids and gentrification have pushed sex workers to other areas of the city as well, “including Browns Line, Danforth Ave., Weston Rdl, Eglinton Ave. W. and Steeles Ave” (Crawford, 2009, n.p.). It is estimated that only 5-10% of sex workers in Toronto are street based (STAR, 2006).

Toronto police report that sex workers in the Jarvis and Church area can earn as much as $300 per client (Doolittle 2009). “Jarvis is one of the few areas in the city where higher-end prostitutes work outdoors” (Doolittle, 2009, n.p.). They also report that southeast of Jarvis and Wellesley Sts is a common work area for transgendered prostitutes, while there is a concentration of drug-addicted sex workers working along River, Shuter and Sherbourne Sts, who “earn as little as $20 for sex acts” (Doolittle, 2009, n.p.). However, the recent recession has decreased earnings for many different kinds of sex workers, including those who work indoors, forcing some to work in more high-risk situations to earn a living (Crawford, 2009).

Toronto regulates exotic massage, exotic dancing and other adult entertainment through city bylaws (STAR, 2006). Sex workers working in these areas find the city’s license fees to be discriminatory, set much higher for them then other occupations. The city also makes it illegal for licensed ‘Body Rub Parlours’ to lock their public-access doors. Though perhaps intended to increase safety by giving police better access to these businesses, it also leads to “increased surveillance and potential arrest” (STAR, 2006, p.24).

In the first few years after it was passed, police made an effort to evenly apply the communication law to both sex workers and clients in Toronto (STAR, 2006). While the police found targeting clients to be effective in decreasing the number of street prostitutes, they also found that many of these workers moved into escort agencies, “increas[ing] the number of pimps and their ability to dominate the prostitution trade” (Larsen, 1996, p.33). Police shifted their focus to escort agencies, only to displace sex workers back to the streets, and then returned to targeting female street prostitutes, only pushing them to different areas of the city. Their failed tactics proved that tougher penalties on sex workers do not in fact diminish street prostitution.

Maggie’s “has reported numerous incidents of police either physically abusing or condoning the abuse of prostitutes” in Toronto (Davis, 1994, n.p.). 

The first John School in Canada was established in Toronto in 1996, soon to be followed by other Canadian cities including Ottawa, Hamilton and Vancouver (Wortley, Fischer & Webster, 2002). Most who go the John school have been caught by undercover police officers posing as prostitutes. The “victim-oriented presentations seek to educate the Johns- through a confrontational shaming ritual about the damage and pain prostitution-related behavior has caused” (Wortley, et al., 2002, p.373).

Migrant sex workers are concentrated in urban centers in Canada, but are particularly present in Toronto. “The city is also used as a jump off point (taking advantage of Canada’s notoriously lax immigration system) for the sex trade in the rest of North America” (Mackenzie Institute, 2000, n.p.). It is estimated that there are “several thousand migrants working in Toronto’s strip clubs, massage parlours, escort services, underground brothels and street prostitution”, and that that 75% of exotic dancers working in Toronto are foreign nationals (Timoshkina & McDonald, 2009). “ [T]he information coming from the club owners suggested that foreign women made up to 75% of all exotic dancers in the country, while Canadian dancers argued that this situation was unique to Toronto” (Timoshkina & McDonald, 2009, p.37).

In 1997, there was a wave of raids on strip clubs and apartments that targeted migrant sex workers (Brock, Gillies, Oliver & Mook, 2000). This tactic continues to be used by Toronto police.  Targeting migrant sex workers is “being used as a rationale to clamp down on prostitution generally” (Brock, et al., 2000, p.89).

While the media portrayed these “places as dens of female sexual slavery and organized crime” (Brock, et al., 2000, p.87), the reality of migrant sex workers is far more complex. While service organizations have reported “dozens of cases of trafficked women”, they represent a minority of migrant sex workers (Timoshkina & McDonald, 2009).  However, migrant sex workers face a complex set of challenges.

“Studies conducted in various parts of the world consistently show that migrant sex workers remain largely outside of the legal, medical and social services structures of the host nations. Poor language skills, usually undocumented status, limited understanding of foreign laws and regulations, absence of support networks, and subjection to xenophobia result in the extreme marginalization of migrants, putting them at a greater risk of abuse and exploitation. Migrants are also more likely to be affected by the negative social dynamics of the sex trade, marked by discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, class, age, and specific place in the industry’s hierarchy” (Timoshkina & McDonald, 2009, p.8). While there are a growing number of agencies in Toronto that serve migrant sex workers, many lack the specialized training and the needed resources to best serve this community.

Advocacy organizations for sex workers have existed in Toronto for some time (STAR, 2006).  In 1983, the Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes was established in Toronto.  Soon after, Maggie’s opened its door, offering support resources and advocacy for sex workers in the city. The Exotic Dancers Alliance (EDA) was formed in 1996, followed by the Exotic Dancers Association of Canada (EDAC) in 2000.