Men like watching women. They always have, and always will. In the BBC television series The Human Animal, the popular anthropologist Desmond Morris observed that the eyes of all men are attracted by three universal characteristics. Women who are healthy and young, who display a lot of clear skin and possess a 7:10 waist to hip ratio will catch the eye of almost any man from any culture. It is safe to assume that these are primary sexual characteristics for the female half of our species.
Beyond these three main characteristics are lot of other variables in what might be termed as the "female aesthetic". In parts of West Africa, once the eye is attracted by the primary attributes, men tend to get excited by a display of shins. The Turks, in their days of Empire, admired a sturdy construction and long white arms. For some strange reason, today's North American males are assumed to be attracted by enormous breasts. Other cultures have placed a premium on proper tattoos, facial hair (the Toda in India) or correctly mutilated feet.
Fundamentally, the female aesthetic Morris described is about sex. Not actual sex, for very few men have been able to have intercourse with all the women that caught their eye, but the idea of sex. This idea or suggestion of sex is a powerful force in itself. This has been harnessed to other things -- religious art (indeed, the first known carvings are of women), military recruiting posters, and a majority of modern advertising campaigns. It can also be used to sell other things, like vast quantities of beer.
Strip clubs (or adult nightclubs, entertainment centres, or whatever else they may be called) around the world are usually in business to sell alcohol and food to patrons. Strippers (or dancers, entertainers or attendants as they are variously called) unmask their primary and secondary sexual characteristics to link the idea of sex to eating and drinking. While patrons might not necessarily be engaged in lofty discussions about aesthetics and culture, they do like the idea of watching women taking off all their clothes.
Several problems result from this, and all of them are somewhat interrelated.
The first problem is that strip clubs can generate a lot of money. One club owner recalled what happened to his restaurant when he brought in his first strippers in the early 1970s. "I expected to get $37,000 that month, this would cover everything and leave a $1,000 for my partner and me. Instead, we got $55,000".
Moreover, the strippers are usually paid little by club owners -- $700 a week is common, although up to twice that is possible for women who may draw in a lot of customers. Much of this is earned by doubling as waitresses or for dancing on stage. Strippers may earn more money directly from the patrons by dancing for them at their table (or on their lap) for tips. Strippers do usually pass on a share of their earnings to the disk jockey/MC who coordinates their appearances on a club's main stage.
For club owners, while easy money is welcome money, it also means a lot of competition can appear in a hurry. Easy money means that other people want a cut of it. Strip club owners have had to contend with pressure from organized crime, entertainment organizations and agents, municipal tax authorities, and have usually found it politic to be generous to the community.
The second set of problems result from a combination of competition and consumer demand. The border between the idea of sex and sex itself is an undefined gray zone -- with every individual having their own ideas on the matter. In Canada, being a nation with a tradition of the rule of law, one might assume that legislators have given thought to this "gray zone" and worked out a proper boundary. They have not done any such thing. Instead, the matter has been deferred to judges who must work their way through a policy vacuum, differing notions of community standards and a variety of individual interpretations on the matter. There is no clear idea in Canada between judges, police officers, politicians, strip-club owners, strippers and patrons about what is and is not illegal, or what does and does not constitute "real" sex as opposed to the idea of sex.
Moreover, the appreciation of the female aesthetic is not some abstract intellectual pursuit. One thing that is more powerful than the idea of sex is actual sex. Most men want to see more, and if one strip club will not give them what they want, the next one just might. Once they have seen more, they might want to do more... and here is where another real problem begins.
Up until the 1960s, stripping in most North American jurisdictions consisted of peeling down to the underwear (or a G-string and pasties). Some performers -- such as the famous Sally Rand and her classic fan dances -- might have been in the altogether, but the audience only got brief flashes of titillation. Then in the 1960s, Carole Doda made topless dancing common in California, and then beyond. By the 1970s, the battle was on for full nudity. Clubs that could provide it (such as those outside Toronto) did better than those that could not. By the time the battle of the G-string was over, table dancing had become the new issue. Then, in the 1990s came lap-dancing, private booths and "executive lounges". Clubs that would provide these services were in a position to take patrons away from those that would not.
However, in lap dancing, the stripper is literally sitting on the patron's lap while displaying all of her charms. For some customers, injunctions about looking and not touching are unlikely to be obeyed under these circumstances -- particularly when in a dimly lit semi-private booth. For some strippers, the chance to pick up even more money by allowing themselves to be fondled, or (for a seemingly much smaller number) by engaging in oral sex or full intercourse, is also too much to pass up. While a vast majority of strippers and many patrons are unwilling to go quite this far, it is relatively easy for a small minority to do so if circumstances permit.
The suspicion that many people have about lap dancing is that it has almost crossed the gray zone between the idea of sex and actual sex itself. In short, that lap dancing is too close to prostitution to be tolerated by some, and is viewed as risqué but acceptable by others.
Herewith the third field of conflict. There has long been a dynamic tension between sexual license and the need to control it. Every generation that experiments with sexual freedom leaves a legacy of unfortunate consequences for the next. The resulting cyclical struggle between what might be determined as sexual freedom vs. sexual security, or debauchery vs. decorum is an old one. The partisans of prudence have a number of arguments to brandish -- fear of sexually transmitted diseases, concerns about family stability, and concern for women's safety being among them. It might be difficult to wage war on adultery, and prostitution has survived every attempt to suppress it. For moralists, strip clubs are big, fat, easy targets -- and in Toronto, the issue of lap dancing ignited real controversy.
Enforcement agents such as the police or by-law enforcement officers are sensitive to political pressure and must react to it. Additionally, ambitious officers and officials might undertake their own campaigns against strip clubs to provide the illusion of action against an untrammeled (and therefore dangerous) sex industry.
To complicate matters, a recent decision by Canada's Supreme Court ruled that fondling or kissing a woman's breasts in a strip club is not an indecent act. The common experience of the vast majority of Canadians would indicate that it surely is a sexual act. For most police officers, paying a woman money in order to do this ought to constitute an act of prostitution. For strip club owners who see their customers going elsewhere if they do not permit this to go on in their own establishments, this cannot be prostitution -- or the Supreme Court would surely have said as much. As for what strippers themselves think there are a variety of opinions and concerns.
There is little consistency in modern thought. Young teenagers are educated about sex, bombarded with sexual images, and then told to abstain from it. Condemnation of homosexuality is as almost as taboo as homosexuality itself once was. Indeed, much of the militancy in today's gay community stems from a reaction to the repression of the recent past -- the riot marked by the police raid on a New York bathhouse in 1969 is still commemorated. There are activities in today's Gay clubs (two of which were visited during the course of research for this report) which would never be tolerated in a conventional strip club. The "slurp ramp" for public male ejaculations at one club being a notorious case in point.
Politicians in Toronto have been discussing the legalization of some aspects of prostitution at the same time they have condemned lap dancing in strip clubs. The question of legalizing prostitution in Toronto may already be moot. For decades, Toronto's newspapers and citizens have seemingly tolerated escort agencies and call girls, and now appear to accept "spas" and "massage parlors" which effectively function as brothels with a thinly veiled cover. Nor has there been much consideration given to the booming "Phone-Sex" industry, where customers pay to be aroused by explicit suggestions of sex. Yet the idea of prostitution functioning inside strip clubs has become a political issue, and may yet be one again.
Confusion over what is and what is not acceptable has been worsened by struggles over political authority, obscure points of law, and -- as ever -- simple human ambitions and misconceptions. This adds to the problems of enforcement agencies and clubs alike, as the laws are unenforceable, unclear, unjust, or all three at once.
The combination of these conflicts and related factors does not make for a simple analysis.
Toronto and the surrounding cities have a number of strip clubs -- some 30 or so at the time of writing. Every strip-club is different in terms of the combination of clientele, dancers, and atmosphere. Some display nothing but extremely attractive and fit young women, others are much less discerning about their dancers. Some have an open and cheerful atmosphere; others are dingy and depressing. Some largely draw their clients from a particular community or neighborhood, others cater to a more upscale market. However, there are universal characteristics to the clubs.
First, the real business of any strip club is the sale of alcohol to patrons. Club owners agree on this point, and it is, after all, how they earn most of their money. Prices are higher in clubs than they are in regular bars (usually by about $1.00 for a bottle of beer), and the volume of sales is very high. Some clubs move over 30,000 cases of beer a year -- or 2,000 bottles per day. Spirits, wine and food are somewhat less important, but are still very lucrative.
The provision of strippers (or dancers as many prefer to be called) is secondary. Some of the costs of basic salaries, marketing and promotion are raised by cover charges at the door. The cover charge also provides the "reality" of a club's existence. By charging admission, the club can be said to be exercising control over access to the public. Moreover, the charge means that customers are assuredly there by their own choice, and may be described as patrons.
Additional profits related to stripping now come from charging access to private rooms (often described as "champagne rooms" or executive lounges). These are private areas apart from the main floor of a club, and are configured to allow individuals or small parties of patrons to sit away from the commons. In some clubs, the more attractive or skilled dancers are also often assigned to these smaller rooms. In others, these women may be requested after having danced on the stage.
With the advent of table dancing in the 1980s and lap dancing in the 1990s, many clubs have created semi-private booths for one or two patrons. There is an additional -- and usually heavy --charge for these. These booths do not have doors (although a flimsy curtain might be provided). It is here where the line between non-sexual and sexual contact between a dancer and a patron is most likely to be crossed. Nevertheless, the only explicitly sexual act that was observed in the field research for this report took place in a corner of a public area in a club in late 1999. The stripper was providing oral sex to a patron in a club that was well outside of Toronto.
Table dancing consists of individual performances by strippers at a patron's table or booth. The dancer may bring a small stool or chair and stand or sit on it while performing. For a lap dance, the stripper places a towel on the patron's lap then sits there while disrobing and gyrating.
The dancers themselves are licensed (usually) by Toronto's Metro Licensing Board and may be generally described as self-employed. While many dancers operate under a nom de plume, the Board is aware of the real names and identities of licensees. Since 1980, the Board is supposed to ensure that women who have been convicted of prostitution-related offences do not receive licenses. To do this, all strippers must present two pieces of ID (including one piece of photo ID), sign a waiver allowing the Board to look at their police records, and prove that they have the right to work in Canada. The Board does not accept applications from those who are under 18. These are photo IDs and cost $186 for the initial registration, with another $85 for every six month extension.
While club owners are responsible for the misbehaviour of their employees and dancers, in many ways they are vulnerable to the Board. If a dancer with a license is a prostitute, under age, or has a criminal record, the club owner may not be aware of it. On the other hand, a club that hires unlicensed dancers is begging for trouble -- and might deserve all that it gets.
Toronto's strip clubs must be also be licensed. No new clubs have been licensed in the old pre-amalgamation Toronto since the early 1980s, but with the 1998 amalgamation, nobody is quite sure of the status of club licenses in the whole city. Moreover, in Ontario, clubs must also meet the approval of the Liquor Licensing Board of Ontario (now a part of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission) to sell alcohol. Both sets of licenses can be suspended if prostitution does occur on the premises.
A few dancers have found stripping to be easier work than prostitution, but remain ready to turn a quick trick if a patron is willing to pay for it. A club owner, who might not know the real name or history of all dancers, could still be charged whenever such a transaction is detected by the police -- or alleged by another party (including a rival club owner). Sometimes dancers allow themselves to be picked up on a non-commercial basis by patrons. They are mostly young women with the appetites of the young. One even told a researcher that she was dancing until she met someone worth marrying.
For their part, dancers expect to be protected from abusive or dangerous patrons... which leads to another expense for club owners. Most have a bouncer or two on the premises, some of whom are quite formidable indeed. Club owners and bouncers are also usually alert to drug dealers and gang members, both of which may try to conduct some business on their premises. In Toronto, a number of club managers tend to maintain cordial relations with local police officers, partly to ensure a rapid and sympathetic response in case of problems.
Strippers themselves are eclectic, and do not easily fall into stereotypes of any kind -- except for their choices in stage names. A recent story in the Toronto Sun (April 25, 2000) indicated that some 10% of Toronto's 2,266 licensed strippers called themselves Angel or Angela. Nikki, Mary, Kitty, Mona, Nympha, Passion and Peaches are also favorite names.
Some 26 strippers were interviewed within the City of Toronto in the course of this study. Almost all of them were interviewed on the job, and were prepared to talk -- if they were still being paid for their time (Just like lawyers, really.) While 26 is hardly a valid sample insofar as statistical accuracy is concerned, it is enough to get a general sense of background and motive.
It is also significant that all of the 26 were licensed and interviewed in the City of Toronto. The dynamics do seem different outside of Toronto, where the enforcement regime is often different and there is said to be more involvement by organized crime. This results in a seemingly higher proportion of non-Canadian women and Quebecois (depending on the club), both suggesting involvement by groups like the Russian Mafiya or Chinese Triads, or the Bikers respectively. Several dancers interviewed elsewhere in Ontario lead to an impression that the situation outside Toronto was different.
Of the 26 Toronto strippers, nine were from visible minorities (the Caribbean especially), and six appeared to be from Eastern Europe. This, however, does not mean that any of these 15 were not Canadian citizens. However, many people in the industry believe that a third to half of all dancers now employed in the country are "imports" from other nations. Some of these have had their travel to Canada facilitated by organized crime; but others will say the same thing if asked about it.
While most strippers are reluctant to talk about their own backgrounds in their work environment, seven mentioned that they were students in university or college (and another planned to go back), and six acknowledged that they were single parents. Seven made a comment to the effect that they were dancing to "make ends meet." Many others said that they found the money was easy to make -- a comment made by several of the single mothers. Insofar as it was possible to tell, three of the 26 interview subjects gave the appearance of being under the influence of narcotics (dilated pupils and an agitated nature).
Some very general observations: The strippers who appeared to be from Quebec or the Caribbean had a generally relaxed attitude towards their work. One might suppose this relates to cultural differences towards sex and sex-related issues; both areas being somewhat more relaxed about such things than Ontario and its stronger tradition of prudence. The "local" girls gave the appearance of coming from blue-collar backgrounds, but this is also an impression rather than an observation.
Stripping was generally felt to be easy money, but with some caveats. Aggressive or obnoxious customers were commonly felt to be a problem. The boundary between the idea and the availability of sex is a gray one, and a few customers do not bother to recognize this. There is also, particularly in some clubs, a habit of autoeroticism among a few clients and many dancers have noticed it at one time or another. Three respondents reported spotting occasional used condoms in strip clubs -- but presumed these to be the results of masturbation rather than intercourse.
Five made the comment that they found some of their coworkers to be "sleazy", implying drug use or a readiness to engage in prostitution -- or perhaps this just a general dislike for other dancers and staff. There can be some jealousy between dancers and some competition for favorite customers. Others say they get along fine with the other dancers and the management.
Dancers are given some pay for an occasional turn on stage. For table or lap dancing, they have to solicit the patrons, and usually get $10-20 per "song" -- the carefully timed music all being played by a DJ to whom the dancers are expected to give a share of their proceeds. At the end of the night, if the dancer does not have someone to pick them up and see them safely out the door, a cab ride is necessary. Income from patrons varies wildly. On a slow night, a dancer might barely clear $60 or so... which might leave her with $30 once she makes it home. On a good night, she might take $600 home.
It is also difficult to stay motivated night after night, and to give the illusion of erotic interest without letting the mercenary aspect of the job surface. One interview subject admitted that it was hard to keep her "working face" on. Just as the researchers found the pulchritudinous aspect of naked women had worn off early in the project, it is very easy for some dancers to develop contempt for their patrons. One dancer referred to the rank of men seated by the stage as "gynecology row".
This negative attitude is not universal. There are favorite customers who are liked -- and trusted -- by some dancers, and an easy informality can exist in some clubs. Dancers who take a burlesque humor to work can find that they are popular and admired for more than their physical appearance. A few have worked as strippers for several years. One interview subject had been one for seven years, which implies at least some enjoyment of her job. Another had been with the same club for five years with no complaints. Another said that the work was fun and she always enjoyed it.
Dancers do have their own likes and dislikes about the industry. Most are aware that the real money is to be made in lap dancing, but dislike the risks inherent in private booths. However, many appreciate clubs with "panic buttons" in the booths and/or a roving supervisor who looks in on them. They also dislike clubs where hard-core pornography plays on TV sets for the patrons to watch. Few, however, feel any loyalty or affection to any particular clubs, and a couple of black dancers said that they had been pressured to move elsewhere by club owners who wanted a higher proportion of white/European girls.
Stripping may also induce stress with boyfriends, husbands and in family life. The hours can be long, and the variable income is another source of stress. While no dancer said that they found the work degrading or humiliating, some implied as much. "Candice" and "Brandy" (who both had admitted to engaging in prostitution at other times) suggested they had developed a clear contempt for almost all men. Others rely on the support of their husbands or boyfriends.
The one point about strippers in Toronto is that they have chosen this job, for the money and because it is relatively easy to do. Being largely unsalaried self-employed performers, most strippers choose the clubs they perform in, and are free to leave a situation they find stressful. Most know who to turn to if a patron makes them uncomfortable, and most appear to be willing to perform lap dancing.
Some strippers seem to enjoy reacting with their customers and the audience generally -- giving the appearance of those natural performers who take energy from being on centre stage.
Prostitution is endemic in Canada. Ads even in "Cottage Country" telephone books and rural community newspapers can alert the consumer to escort agencies and individual hookers. In Toronto, escort agencies have been advertised since the early 1970s, and the back pages of community papers like Now Magazine and Eye Magazine are filled with ads for individual hookers of both sexes.
De facto brothels now operate in several Canadian Cities. Many are associated with organized crime -- particularly Chinese Triads and the Russian Mafiya. In these cases, women are expected to pay off the criminals for bringing them to Canada through prostitution. Police in several Canadian cities have busted functioning brothels that have been run by these groups. However, not all such brothels are run by foreign criminals. Canadian-born pimps have carried off young runaways to a life of drug-dependent hooking across the country. Outlaw Bike gangs have been known to do the same thing.
Police officers report that this sort of prostitution is brutal and sordid. The women are expected to service many customers, on unwashed mattresses, often without protection from sexually transmitted diseases or abusive customers. They are kept frightened and disoriented through a combination of physical violence and narcotics.
During the wrap-up to Project Trade in late 1998, Detective Peter Yuen of the multi-agency task force discussed the working conditions of the 39 Thai women brought into Canada by the gang. Each woman normally had to make a quota of 500 customers before they were allowed to start earning money for themselves. It must be added that in this case, most of the women knowingly entered Canada illegally with the intention of becoming prostitutes.
The other side of the bottom scale of prostitution is invariably associated with narcotics. Streetwalkers on urban "tracks" troll for customers to provide them with the money for narcotics and -- a distant second -- for the other necessities of life. One researcher for this report lives near a track in Toronto. He observes that most of the customers seem to be middle-class men in mini-vans, station wagons and SUVs -- "family" vehicles. As for the streetwalkers, most are aged long before their time between turning tricks and doing drugs. They are also extremely vulnerable to predators, and not a few have been murdered in Toronto in recent years.
One short step up from the street are those prostitutes who habituate particular hotels and taverns (some of the sort of establishment that Institute researchers became familiar with during previous explorations of the black market in cigarettes, firearms and alcohol). Most appear to be habitual substance abusers, but are permitted -- or ignored -- by staff and operate within the building.
The kidnapped/hijacked girls and the streetwalkers are the forms of prostitution with which most Canadians are "familiar", albeit seldom as customers. The first receives much press when detected -- being a nightmare situation for almost any parent -- and the second occasionally attracts considerable interest from community groups trying to limit the effect it has on their own lives and property values.
However, in the absence of any comprehensive survey of prostitution in Canada, it would be safe to assume that most of it involves escort agencies and independents. Advertising through print, and occasionally using hotel bars, these prostitutes are generally safer from interference by police.
When prostitution is generally tolerated, it becomes institutionalized. The "Closed Houses" of Paris (before 1946), the Brothels of any time in pre-Victorian England, or the establishments of the Pornai in Classical Greece are cases in point. Canadian brothels now exist in several cities, usually behind a thin veneer of legality as Massage Parlours or Spas. Although police do occasionally intervene, they do not do so often enough to prevent these from being profitable. From all appearances (such as from ads in the media), this is a growing industry. One might argue that Canadian prostitution is on the verge of being institutionalized.
Indeed, a researcher for this report discussed this seeming tolerance with a disfigured friend who has been a habitué of brothels for some years. This friend mentioned that none of the 11 "massage parlours" or "spas" he has used has ever been raided, although several appear to be run by the Russian Mafiya or Chinese Triads.
During a trip to Vancouver, the same researcher for this study visited a local strip club. While interviewing the manager and nosing about the premises, he was surprised to find two separate facilities within the same building. The first was a routine strip club, very much like any decent club in Toronto -- complete with private booths where private dancing was permitted (These were closely supervised and video-taped, as Vancouver police enforce a "no sexual touching" by-law). The second facility was a brothel, operating under the name of a massage parlour.
The same owner ran both facilities -- their premises, employees and finances being carefully separated. The strippers in the strip club were strippers; the prostitutes in the brothel were prostitutes. The existence of this 25-year old brothel is an open secret in Vancouver, and the police do not trouble to investigate it.
Indeed, some Toronto politicians have been arguing that officially tolerated prostitution is an idea whose time has come. Toronto Councilor Chris Korwin-Kuzcynski is among them and has openly campaigned for the acceptance of a red-light district where brothels can openly function. Other city councilors support the idea (albeit often more circumspectly).
In March 1995, a paper from the Federal-Provincial- Territorial Working Group on Prostitution was forwarded for comment to members of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The paper, "Dealing with Prostitution in Canada" recommended decriminalization of this ancient trade. Another paper by the University of Waterloo sociologist, Rona Achilles, called "The Regulation of Prostitution" also received wide circulation among Canadian municipalities at this time. The paper advocated the creation of tolerated bordellos.
In May 1995, Toronto's Board of Health also issued a statement supporting the decriminalization of prostitution and recommended the Acting Medical Officer of Health initiate the process of consultation with regards to the same. Curiously, the same meeting also voted to urge the City to declare lap-dancing illegal in Toronto.
There is a link of sorts between stripping and prostitution in that some women are willing to do both. A former girlfriend of one researcher had been both -- at different times -- during a hard period during her late teenage years. Some club owners do warn dancers that short unscheduled breaks (usually in the parking lot) with patrons will result in dismissal. This is not much of a threat. Being largely self-employed, a dismissed dancer can get work in another club so long as her license is still valid. Also, there is a shortage of dancers in Canada and most clubs are always on the lookout for more.
More interestingly, Councilor Norm Gardener, a senior member of the Police Services Board with many links to Metro Toronto Police intelligence, observed that the 1994-5 crackdown on lap dancing in Toronto strip clubs resulted in an upsurge in prostitution. The opinion in the police was that the crackdown had strongly reduced the demand for strippers in Toronto, and so turned approximately one third of the dancers towards an even older profession.
This does not imply that a third of all dancers are hookers who use the clubs to practice. Rather, it suggests that, should stripping not be available as a form of lucrative semi-skilled work for young women without other recourse, about a third of them will turn to prostitution instead. Indeed, of the 26 interview subjects, "Candice" implied that she had worked as a prostitute, but found that dancing was safer albeit less lucrative. "Brandy" was more open, and said she might engage in both activities depending on circumstances. Six Toronto dancers curtailed the interview when this question came up, resulting in a researcher's ejection from the club in two cases. However, one stripper when questioned on this issue offered her home telephone number and a price for a later meeting. This was the research team's only direct encounter with prostitution in the clubs.
There have been frequent allegations from police, a few journalists, community activists and some political figures that prostitution does take place in Toronto's strip-clubs. However, actual charges and convictions seem to be rare. At various times in the lap-dancing debate, Toronto newspaper reporters either cited police officers or described for themselves how sex was possible during lap dancing. Articles in some newspapers detailed how some clubs were veritable bacchanalias of sordid behavior, where oral sex or intercourse could occur anywhere in plain sight.
We have some reservations about these reports.
During the course of research for this paper, in addition to the dancers that were interviewed about working conditions and their opinions, twelve different dancers in and outside Toronto were solicited for sexual services while table dancing or lap dancing. Eleven refused outright, and the twelfth did so quite forcefully. In each case, the researcher was in a private booth or small room, and had already spent some time with the dancer to display interest. In short, the approaches were those which would seem normal from an amorous patron.
Eleven consecutive refusals, a twelfth outraged one, and only one unsolicited invitation from the 26 other interview subjects could be a statistical fluke. Nevertheless, this result does lead to a natural conclusion that stories about prostitution inside strip clubs are considerably exaggerated.
If prostitution is so available elsewhere in the City, then why go after it in strip clubs?
The tension between permissiveness and "community standards" is found at the municipal level. Most of the laws that determine what may and can not be done in a strip club are generated by local governments. There are also differences in provincial laws. Quebec, for example, had dancers in the altogether long before Ontario did. Currently, Toronto grudgingly permits lap dancing; Vancouver does not, while the Supreme Court again declared in December 1999 that it does not violate community standards -- so long as there is no genital contact (by finger, tongue or penis) between stripper and patron.
At the Federal level, lawmaking in Parliament has become second to law interpreting in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, moreover, gets cases appealed to it from disputes over provincial and municipal law. Regardless, many of their decisions are often ignored by municipalities and provinces; lap dancing being a case in point.
When the law is vague, indistinct or confused, those charged with law enforcement often make deliberate attempts to find where the boundaries are by making their contributions to the melee. One member of the Toronto Police Services board explained how police often lay charges in circumstances where the law is indistinct or confused in the hope that the resulting trials will clarify the situation. Getting the defendants to help to pay for the legal exercise is a secondary benefit -- representing a drain on the coffers of someone that the cops do not like.
All of this results in several effects among strip clubs. In the early 1980s, Toronto passed the so-called G-String by-law that ensured that a stripper could never be entirely nude. Clientele and dancers went north to strip clubs outside the Metro Boundary. A small group of Toronto club owners fought the case all the way up to the Supreme Court and won. Business flowed back into Toronto clubs.
In the early 1990s, lap dancing started to appear in Ontario. In early 1991, the owner and the manager of Cheater's Tavern, a Toronto Club, were charged with presenting an indecent performance contrary to Section 167 (1) of the Criminal Code, by permitting table and lap dancing. The wheels of Justice grind slowly, and it was not until February 1994 that Judge E.G. Hachborn of the Ontario Court (Provincial Division) presented his judgment.
The basis of his judgment was a test against the Canadian community standard of tolerance. Hachborn felt his hands were tied because of a 1993 Supreme Court decision regarding a case in Quebec, and another Ontario case regarding pornography. He cited a decision where the Supreme Court could tolerate a mutual masturbation session between a nude customer and performer in a Quebec club and another case where the Ontario Supreme Court could accept hard-core pornography. If these fell with community standards of tolerance, then -- against his own personal instincts -- lap dancing must be tolerable too.
Judge Hachborn's decision touched off a firestorm. In Toronto, some politicians reacted immediately. Michael Walker, a long-time Toronto Councilor had responded to constituent's complaints against Cheaters in 1991. With the Hachborn decision, Walker submitted a motion to Toronto City Council to condemn the decision, request that the Provincial Attorney General appeal it, and ask the Liquor Licensing Board of Ontario to revoke the club's license to serve alcohol. The motion passed within six days.
Michael Walker cited several complaints from local citizens about the Club. Residents whose property adjoined that of the club reported finding "needles, condoms, and underwear" in their yards. Walker stated that one resident had discovered a couple engaging in sex in their garden and a club patron defecating in another. The same residents also complained about the noise generated by patrons leaving the club in the wee hours after closing.
These complaints from Walker's constituents seem valid. If not watched very closely by management and staff, a club might have problems with drug dealers and prostitutes plying their trade outside the club in the parking lot. The other complaints all seem natural enough. However, some of Walker's colleagues in Toronto and Metro Council were a bit more cynical about the Councilor's motives in raising the issue during an election year.
Cynicism aside, the lap dancing issue refused to die and returned after the election with greater force. There are strippers that like lap dancing and others that feel it either demeans or endangers them. The majority appears to have no problem with it, provided they are in a position of safety should a patron become too excited. Citing the Hachborn decision, one stripper in Toronto launched a serious and very professional lobbying campaign against Lap Dancing.
Terry Komodorous is the older of two brothers (Spiros being his partner and younger brother) who own the Houses of Lancaster. One House of Lancaster is located on Bloor Street in Toronto amid a gritty working class area with a high proportion of Portuguese and Italian residents. The second location is in Etobicoke on the Queensway, close to Royal York. These are among two of the largest strip clubs in Toronto, and had -- until 1995 -- the largest sales of beer.
The Komodorous brothers were born in rural Greece, in a mountain village near the ruins of Sparta. Terry was born in 1937 and had the distinct disadvantage of spending his childhood years in both the German occupation and the Civil War that followed. The poverty of his rural district and the disruptions of two wars meant that he had to learn more from experience (which does teach one more about people) than any formal schooling. However, Terry is proud of the library of classic histories and philosophical works he has waded through in latter life.
Terry immigrated to Canada as a young man, and soon entered the restaurant business as a dishwasher. Within a few years he was a bartender and was saving enough to open his own place. It failed, and he went to New York to start over. Once he cleared his debts, he started all over again. By the early 1970s, he owned two restaurants and brought Spiros over to help run them. So far, this could be the story of any successful immigrant to Canada, but the two brothers were about to launch a project that would bring them to a new level of affluence.
Terry saw his first strippers on a visit to Montreal. A few inquiries and observations suggested that this was a way to sell a lot of beer. On returning to Toronto, a few more inquiries indicated that he could open strip clubs in Toronto without much effort. He did this, opened up the two current House of Lancaster sites in the early 1980s, and business became very good indeed.
Throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, the clubs generated a very healthy income. The Komodorous brothers were also able to cultivate friendly relations with local politicians and the Metro Police. Young police officers are as likely as any other young men to visit strip clubs, and many early patrons of the two clubs have gone on to senior positions. The relations with the police also helped in fending off several approaches by organized crime to insinuate itself into his business.
Perhaps because of his childhood experiences, Terry retains a belligerent attitude towards those who interfere with what he has built. He formed a small association of club owners and led them to the Supreme Court to fight against the G-String By-law. He also persisted in a long dispute with SOCAN (the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada) over royalties for music played in his clubs. This grudge match only ended in 1994, when the new Liberal government made an end-run around the club-owners' association.
Another essential player in the budding conflict was Jack Layton. He is a more complex character than Terry Komodorous is. He is a long-standing City and Metro Councilor, being continually in office from 1982 onwards, barring a hiatus in 1991-94 after an unsuccessful bid to become Toronto's mayor. Layton (and his wife Olivia Chow -- another Metro Councilor since 1991) is very adept in handling the city's agencies and departments. He knows where all the buttons are and how to push them.
He gets results and a safe proportion of his residents like him. While municipal elections generally favour incumbents, even a mediocre performance would not result in the strong support Layton enjoys among his constituents.
However, over the years, the casual observer might conclude that Layton has two constituencies. Besides his electors, he has been a generally enthusiastic supporter of "progressive" politics; and has championed a number of causes over the years -- anti-nuclear campaigns, the environment, housing issues, violence against women, ad infinitum. He is a capable activist in addition to being (like most political figures) a skilled net-worker. While perhaps not strongly dedicated to any one particular cause, those that attract his involvement have gained the benefit of some formidable talents.
Some strip club owners believe that Layton is the author of their problems, and that he may be a cats-paw for other interests. It is true that Layton has been less than particular in some of his causes. For example, he has appeared at meetings organized by the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils, a group described by the US State Department as a front for a terrorist organization. (Layton is certainly not the only Canadian politician to do this.) However, he is very much his own man in selecting the causes he wants to support.
The value of gratitude being what it is, Layton's contribution towards Toronto's strip clubs in the early 1980s has long been forgotten. Layton had worked with John Sewell and David Cooper (owner of the Zanzibar) to allow existing strip clubs to keep their licenses while limiting the number of new clubs. The agreement placed a cap on the number of clubs in Toronto, and so limited the competition faced by many clubs since.
In 1995-96, some club owners observed a close cooperation between Layton and a former stripper named Katherine Goldberg.
Goldberg was the third main player in the strip club debates of 1995-96. In May and June 1995, she wrote to a large number of Ontario municipalities and officials in Metro Toronto, requesting that they take action against lap dancing and to solicit their support for action by the Metro Government. The responses are attached as communications in the Metro Clerk's records of the August 1995 Metro Council meeting (although copies of her letters of solicitation are absent). For a new-minted activist, she displayed great acumen and skill.
Forming a group called the Association of Burlesque Entertainers, Katherine Goldberg became its president. A vice-president of the group was her husband, Michael. According to Layton, he was a talented musician specializing in organ music. Both made several appearances before Metro Council's Human Services Committee. Although the group claimed to have a wide membership, the only other known member was someone known as Doug Moore. Aside from Goldberg, no strippers, current or retired ever presented themselves as members of the association.
Little is known about Goldberg, as she was extremely protective of her identity. She claimed to have been a dancer for some years at six clubs, although nobody is clear which name she practiced under. Terry Komodorous believes that she may have danced for several months at Filmore's (but not the House of Lancaster), but nobody is sure about her record. Other club owners have no recollection of her, but six years is a long time insofar as the business is concerned.
The Association of Burlesque Entertainers, like many modern groups on the edge of activist politics, appears to have been a shell group where a few persons (sometimes only one) create an organization that claims a much wider constituency.
Layton himself says that he was drawn to support Goldberg and her husband out of sympathy for their cause and a personal liking for the both of them. Given Layton's character, and the effect of Occam's razor, this explanation is quite probable.
Ian Harvey of The Toronto Sun, which closely covered the 1995-96 debate, suggested that Jack Layton allowed Goldberg to use his office and its resources to pursue her campaign. This would be nothing new for Layton, nor is it some sort of sinister abuse of power. Layton has many activist campaigns under his belt, and a long record of offering close support to activists with whom he sympathizes.
Moreover, if Goldberg and the Association of Burlesque Entertainers were a temporary front operating with Layton's advice and guidance, this would also be nothing new or deceitful. Ever since the 1960s and Saul Alinsky's book Rules for Radicals, this has been a common tactic in public life. For example, the Coalition for Gun Control -- one of the most influential forces behind Canada's controversial gun control law -- has never been much more than a bare handful of people (albeit lavishly funded by Ottawa and some municipalities). A new group called Charity Watch has been keeping the Revenue Canada Charities Division busy for the past year by pointing out instance after instance of abuse of charitable laws. The group is nothing much more than a trio of dedicated individuals with hardly any funding.
A simple truth can be too simple for some people. At least one club owner hired a private investigator to look for links between Layton and Goldberg beyond those of a crusading politician and an activist. The private investigator is said to have hacked into Layton's e-mail files and found evidence of complicity between the two (in that the Councilor allegedly used his office to secure financial benefits from welfare agencies for Goldberg). The investigator's findings can not be substantiated -- if they were valid to begin with. Other gossip suggested that a more intimate relationship might exist between the two.
In politics and in life, gossip sometimes has a very tenuous grip on reality; more often envy and disagreement have spun it out of thin air. Layton has generated many political opponents over the years, most of who would be delighted to use any evidence of real salacious or fiscal misbehavior against him. However, even the scurrilous Ottawa scandal sheet Frank Magazine has never hinted at a story of a financial or sexual relationship between Layton and Goldberg -- although it has taken a swing at Layton on several occasions. If any real evidence of a personal or financial relationship between the two did exist, it would have long since been public knowledge. In the absence of any such exposés, both allegations must be baseless.
So why did Layton champion the Association of Burlesque Entertainers?
Politicians (like anyone else -- including the author) can hold contrary positions easily enough. Contemporary progressive politicians have been observed to have a prurient interest in everyone's sex lives but have been unable to balance issues of feminist politics with a generally liberal attitude towards sexual freedom. This would not prevent a politician from being in general favour of issues like legalized prostitution, but would make him or her ready to champion women who work in strip clubs.
To a contemporary progressive politician, women are supposed to be able to free from abuse, and all workers are supposed to have a safe work environment. Women are also supposed to be able to have choice. The consequences of choice apply to some women, prostitutes for example, but are not extended to those who elect to work in strip clubs. This is because a prostitute has chosen to be a prostitute, and in contemporary progressive politics, this choice can be respected. A stripper is presumed to have chosen to be a stripper and not to be a prostitute. Therefore, anything that suggests the stripper may be compelled towards prostitution by her work environment must be fought.
To follow the course of events in the aftermath of the Hachborn Decision can be an even more complicated story: A simple synopsis follows.
The first reaction came with Councilor Walker's failed attempt to get the Liquor License for Cheater's Tavern suspended in March 1994. The liquor Licensing Board found no grounds for a suspension, and the issue petered out (but perhaps generating some political capital for Councilors Walker and Kay Gardiner in the 1994 election). With this failure, lap dancing became widespread in the Toronto clubs and more strippers had been exposed to the new trend through 1994.
Some observers (including Ian Harvey of the Sun) and some strippers believed that a turf war was beginning to develop in 1994. Prostitutes were said to be becoming licensed dancers in order to practice in the clubs. Some of the clubs, including the Jungle Room in North York and Fantasia (a notorious club in Richmond Hill) were starting to produce some raw acts, and others threatened to follow.
The last time that one researcher had gone into a low-end strip club as an unwilling but paying customer was during this period. He noticed that the main activity in the club was well away from the tired girls gyrating on the club floor, and that there seemed to be an atmosphere of charged sexual excitement upstairs. This club remains a depressing place, and two of the dancers thought to be performing under the influence of narcotics were interviewed here.
It seems reasonable to assume that in some clubs, lap dancing was becoming everything some of its critics feared it would be. For other clubs, like the Houses of Lancaster, 1994 was business as usual. Many clubs were not configured for lap dancing, and the main occupation of the owners was the sale of beer. However, business was about to drastically fall off.
In early 1995, Katherine Goldberg began her campaign against lap dancing. Sometime in March, her efforts attracted the support of Councilor Jack Layton, and her influence accelerated. The first goal was to get support from Metro Council (through the Human Services Committee of the Council) and the Metro Licensing Commission. In late May, Layton called the Commission's attention to lap dancing. The Commission declared that it had considered action against the practice in a communication it offered to the Human Services Committee on 22 June 1995.
In activism, the first step is to secure your resources. Goldberg found Layton and appeared to be able to make use of his experience and support. The next step is to outline your objections to the cause in hand. In June, Layton forwarded communications written between March and June to the Human Services Committee of Metro Council. During this time, Layton and Goldberg developed the themes they intended to use in attracting the Metro Council's support for a new bylaw. These two themes were concerns over the health and safety of women. The appearance of prostitution in the strip clubs was declared a danger to dancers who did not care to be solicited. In addition, it was argued that lap dancing could result in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases -- particularly AIDS. (Interestingly, this concern has almost vanished today).
The first point is valid enough, most strippers do not like been taken for hookers, and dislike being solicited. The second point over-eggs the pudding. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are transmitted by sex, not by lap dancing. Crabs, lice and fleas might pass from person to person during lap dancing, but those who are infested with them are unlikely to afford to be able to enter strip clubs or to be invited to perform there. According to medical authorities, neither AIDS nor syphilis can pass through intact skin.
After amassing your resources and creating your arguments, the third step is recruit allies and get them to bombard officials with letters and communications. The activist must be able to either harness the resources of an entire community or -- as is usually the case -- to provide the illusion of massive support. In Toronto, this support is then aimed at a Sub-Committee of municipal government, and a resolution is passed onto the larger council for approval. Goldberg and Layton showered the Community Services Committee of Metro Council, the Metro Licensing Commission, and Metro Council itself with letters objecting to lap dancing.
In the early days of the Goldberg-Layton campaign, the Metro Licensing Commission demurred against taking any particular action on Toronto strip clubs. Within weeks, this changed, and the Commission was making rumbling noises about investigating prostitution and lap dancing in Toronto clubs. Curiously, when the Toronto Sun's Ian Harvey requested access to their reports under the Freedom of Information Act, the Commission fought tooth and nail to avoid giving him any material. Harvey and others believe that they had not actually been conducting any investigations in the first half of 1995, and were caught off-guard by the campaign.
For example, in June 1995, the Metro Licensing Commission canvassed Metro Police about underage dancers in clubs, to be told that the police were unaware of any problem. A year later, in August 1996, the Commission announced that it had undertaken an investigation between July 31st and August 13th. In the course of their investigations, they inspected some 57 adult entertainment centres and charged 18 owners and 18 dancers with various offences. However, of the club owners interviewed in this study, none could recall any visits from the Commission during this time.
Regarding other submissions, only one City Medical Officer of Health (Dr. Sheela Basur, from East York, now Chief Medical Officer for the amalgamated City of Toronto) grudgingly endorsed the concerns about lap dancing and the transmission of AIDS.
Other letters are part of the files -- most without names and addresses, saving for those that opposed a ban on lap dancing. One improbable anonymous letter is from the purported husband of a stripper (who was apparently also the mother of five children). It alleges that the correspondent's wife worked as a stripper at the House of Lancaster in 1993-95, but became corrupted as lap dancing slowly turned her work environment into that of prostitution. This apparently so distressed the correspondent that his self-confidence eroded away.
Another anonymous letter is from "a former customer of dancers" and is an uncommonly formidable exercise in empathy. It pleads for safe working conditions and to protect the dancers from disease -- the two common themes of the anti-lap dancing campaign.
In direct contrast to these anonymous letters are other signed communications in support of lap dancing. These included two petitions from Dancers (of 130 signatures and of 85) opposing a ban on lap dancing. Another petition was from Irving Cooper of the Brass Rail, and was signed by most of his employees -- including bartenders, wait-staff, doormen, disc jockeys, cooks, cleaners and managers. These appeared to carry no weight with the Committee.
The July 1995 meeting of the Human Services Committee requested that the Metro Committee pass a by-law to ban touching in strip clubs. It also asked the Committee to encourage other municipalities in Ontario to do likewise and to request the Province place an injunction against touching pending the outcome of the appeal of the Hachborn ruling. The motion declares that the Human Services Committee received testimony from experts in the field of STDs and in violence against women. Whatever they offered is not with the City Clerk's record of the meeting. Moreover, the only submission from a City Medical Officer of Health indicates that the worry over transmitting STDs through lap dancing is a bit remote.
However, Municipal Committees can move at a break-neck pace, and inadequate evidence has never slowed them in the past. Nor did the Metro Committee trouble itself much with the issue in their August 1995 meeting.
[Metro Toronto] By-Law 20-85 Amended 17-08-95
No owner or operator shall, in respect of any adult entertainment parlour owned or operated by him, knowingly permit any attendant, while providing services as an attendant, to touch or be touched by, or have physical contact with any person in any manner whatsoever involving any part of that person's body.
37. No attendant shall, while providing services as an attendant, touch or have physical contact with any other person in any manner whatsoever involving any part of that person's body.
In the discussion that led to this by-law, the original intention was to prohibit touching or contact with buttocks, genital areas and female breasts -- all these being easily understood as "sexual contact". However, the Committee minutes indicate that Councilor Layton pushed through the no-touching amendment with a five-minute speech. Many other Canadian municipalities use the more explicit version of the by-law, but Layton (in an interview for this paper) insisted that the City's legal advisors considered a no-touch law of any kind to be more effective.
The onus in the no-touch by-law lies with owners and managers, many of who considered the law to be un-enforceable and ridiculous -- while having no problems whatsoever with the earlier proposed by-law outlawing sexual contact. To them, it would have been a clear enforceable rule, unlike the one Metro Council actually passed. One manager remarked "This meant I could be in trouble, if one of the girls patted a customer on the shoulder or shook his hand, let alone giving him a hand-job."
Layton also asked Council to request that the Ministry of Citizenship and Culture amend its regulations to exclude lap dancing from professions for which work permits are granted. This is a senseless gesture, as few non-Canadian strippers were familiar with the term. Most applied for work permits as exotic entertainers anyway.
Other measures require no attendant to provide services except in plain sight (e.g., no private booths or "champagne rooms" to be allowed in strip clubs). Additionally, if a club has more than one stage, one stage must be dedicated as the main stage. This brings mixed blessings. Many dancers dislike the private booths; others do not mind them provided that they are not completely private. In addition, if the law applied in Metro Toronto, it certainly would not apply outside of the City.
With these measures, Metro Toronto had already amply provided itself with by-laws that effectively limited lap dancing. However, the war was not over.
For a start, law enforcement in Canada generally and Toronto particularly is selective. There are simply not enough cops and by-law enforcement officers to go around. Passing laws is all very well, but few governments can afford to see them enforced and prosecuted. In many cases, and Metro Toronto is one of them, laws cannot expect to be universally implemented. Instead, one might suppose that the real purpose of some laws is to allow selective prosecution pour encourager les autres.
Katherine Goldberg was not yet finished her campaign. Following the August 1995 Metro Council Meeting, she fired off letters to most municipalities in Ontario, requesting that they follow Toronto's example. Reaction was mixed. Some Municipal governments were unaware of lap dancing, and were horrified by her description of it. Others ignored her or contented themselves with their own existing by-laws.
Metro Council was also lobbied in the summer of 1996 for a new round of by-laws aimed at the city's clubs. This led to a motion in the August 1996 Council Meeting from Councilor Blake Kinahan to attempt to revoke the licenses of places that had accumulated 10 or more charges laid against them. The Chair of the Committee would also be requested to solicit the support of the Liquor Licensing Board of Ontario and the Attorney General of the Province in seeking means to shut down troublesome clubs. Councilor Caroline Di Giovanni also moved for the booth-ban of 1995 to be enforced (meaning that this law had not generally been enforced so far).
Goldberg had also submitted communications in August 1996 to call for more lighting in the clubs and continued the call for a ban on booths and Champagne rooms. This was carried by Metro Council in August and now is a part of the by-law.
In the meantime, there had also been some harassment by police and enforcement agencies -- as well as by unknown parties -- of strip clubs. While many club owners were shy about being interviewed for this study, this was certainly not true for Terry Komodorous -- and he had a lot to say.
In May of 1994, Komodorous had helped form an association of club owners, both to help fight against SOCAN (a fight which was lost almost as soon as the association formed), and to regulate themselves and their clubs. As the lap-dancing debate began again in 1995, both Komodorous and the Irving and Mike Cooper (a father and son team) of the Brass Rail were much involved in trying to fight the coming by-law. Other owners seem to have been lying low.
However, the by-law had an immediate effect in 1995. Beer sales plummeted for those clubs that abided by the new law. According to Komodorous, the Houses of Lancaster's sales went down by 32.5 and 31.7% respectively. Filmore's beer revenues went down by 43.1%. Beer sales at the Brass Rail went up by an estimated 20%, but then the club was full of private areas off the main floor and the Coopers appear to have dared the City to come after them. The fortunes of clubs also varied with their compliance -- or vulnerability -- to the new by-law. Again, like with the G-String issue in the early 1980s, the playing field was tilted.
With the passing of the 1995 No-Touch by-law, the Metro Licensing Commission, asked the City Solicitor for their opinion as to when they can act to suspend licenses of strip clubs. They are told that they need clear evidence before they could. From that point on, according to the Komodorous brothers, their establishments became the targets of a largely anonymous series of complaints seeming designed to get the Commission to act.
For instance, starting in 1995, anonymous complaints about violations of the no-touch by-law and other issues were directed to 52 Division of the Metro Toronto Police. Incidentally, both of the House of Lancaster sites are within the territory of other Divisions of the Police. Many of the complaints were said to come from employees who, as subsequent investigation revealed, did not even exist. However, the anonymous complaints continued to arrive throughout the year and eventually were enough to bring in the Metro Licensing Commission and serious attention from the police. Consequently, starting in January 1996, the Houses of Lancaster were to be in non-stop legal battle.
Similar, but perhaps less frequent, complaints were experienced by other clubs. Most of these came unexpectedly, and were equally anonymous. Normally, when complaints are received by a club, they can be tied to something discernible like a nearby homeowner or to a recognizable incident in the club. It is unusual for police to arrive to investigate a complaint when the bouncers have been idle all night and no irate phone-calls have been received.
The dirty tricks do not all appear to be going one way. Councilor Layton was (and remains) livid over two potentially dangerous acts of vandalism directed against his home and family. The timing of both suggests the vandal was reacting to developments in the strip club debate. In one case, his family awoke to find themselves sealed into their home by powerful adhesives. Later, a fire was deliberately, but clumsily, set in his backyard. Layton has a thick hide but threatening his family is quite beyond the pale.
One final point: the whole issue may be fought once more. In December 1999, the Supreme Court ruled in R v. Pelletier that contact in strip clubs is permissible so long as it takes place in private areas and stops short of explicit sexual activity. This last means no oral sex or intercourse, or manual handling of genital areas, but that private booths and lap dancing are legal. Since then, charges against the owners of the Brass Rail and a Montreal club which apparently allowed patrons to touch the breasts of dancers, have been struck down in Ontario and Quebec. At the time of writing, some Toronto strip clubs were allowing patrons to fondle and lick the breasts of dancers in private booths and champagne rooms.
With this development, it would appear that lap dancing is no longer the cutting edge in Toronto's strip clubs. Again, owners, managers, and dancers (on an individual basis) will have to decide for themselves what to do. If they refuse to cooperate, they will lose out to those who do. One probable outcome for Toronto clubs is that municipal government and enforcement agencies will butt heads with strip clubs in a whole new way. There might be an easier way around the whole problem than another long and expensive set of legal cases.
There has always been a suggestion of organized crime involvement in the strip-club industry. Police in the Greater Toronto Area have insisted for some years that Outlaw Bike Gangs are heavily involved in providing girls (often from Quebec) for clubs outside Toronto. In recent years, there have been suggestions that Russian Mafiya Gangs are also involved. Ian Harvey of the Toronto Sun adds that there may be some connections with the Japanese Yakuza, as some girls from Toronto clubs occasionally rotate to Japan to act as "hostesses".
Several club owners, including Terry Komodorous, say they have received overtures from one of Toronto's Mafia families. In the case of the House of Lancaster, the offer came in 1983. The idea was to create a super-booking agency to provide dancers to all the clubs. The agency never got off the ground, being recognized as a Camel's-nose-in-the-tent ploy by many club owners.
One reason why Komodorous so assiduously cultivated relationships with the police throughout the 1980s and early 1990s was to help deter further overtures from organized crime. Other club owners in Toronto also appreciate the support they could get from the Metro Police when likewise approached. By way of contrast, the situation outside of Toronto can be different.
In the mid-1990s, a Biker conflict north of Toronto resulted in a pair of violent incidents in strip clubs. One called Bunny's had a bomb placed outside it and was trashed by the Satan's Choice Biker Gang in 1997. (Bunny's has since been closed down through the work of a major police task force called Project Almonzo). Another club, called Ricky Ricardo's in Markham was also the site of biker violence in 1995. The Club has since operated as the Goddess club. Another club, Red Rose -- formerly the Jungle Club -- is widely rumoured to be owned by a biker gang as well.
To a lesser extent, strip clubs -- being much more lucrative than bars -- are targets for armed robbery. More than once, the House of Lancaster chain says it has been warned that somebody was planning to stick them up. Other club owners sympathize, but will not discuss their own experiences. Additionally, in the summer of 1998, Spiros Komodorous narrowly beat off a kidnapping attempt by unknown parties just outside of his Bloor Street Club. An unmarked van pulled up alongside him, he was pepper-sprayed, and then an assailant attempted to drag him inside. The brothers are still unsure what to make of this incident, and variously believe it was the Mafia, Bikers, independent criminals, or even by disgruntled members of the police. In this last case, five years of bumpy relationships after 15 of smooth sailing have made them a bit paranoid. As it is, they still do not know why the incident happened; nor why there seems to be no clear police report of the incident as reported.
Organized crime's involvement in prostitution is well known, and the Russian Mafiya, the Bikers, the Chinese Triads and the Yakuza (among others) have all been involved in it. Providing strippers is a sideline, as there is more money to be made from prostitution. But Canada's shortage of strippers appears to have provided a new opportunity.
Canada is apparently experiencing a labor shortage in the area of exotic dancers, and Immigration officers have been told to issue work permits to any that want to work in Canada. Among other things, this has lead to a situation where one Romanian dancer who refused to completely disrobe was told that she lacked the necessary work skills to stay in the country.
However, in recent months, a police task force (headed by Detective Bert O'Mara of the Metro Toronto Police) has undertaken a well-publicized series of raids in Project Almonzo. As of early May, the project raided 17 clubs in and around Toronto, and charged over 600 owners, agents and sex workers. The main thrust of the Project has apparently been to crack down on the use of foreign women who have been brought into Canada to function as strippers and prostitutes by organized criminals.
Women are recruited in Eastern Europe, Central America and Asia by the gangs to work 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. Once here, they are expected to pay for their airfare, upkeep, and the "costs" of bringing them into the country. Several women who say they were in Toronto strip-clubs were expected to turn tricks as prostitutes, and might be raped or beaten by the "agents" who brought them in if they refused. The principal spokesman for Project Almonzo implies that this is common.
Detective O'Mara's comments to the press that suggest a severe problem with foreign-sponsored prostitution in Toronto Clubs, is one at odds with our own experiences. In an article for Xtra!, Toronto's main Gay and Lesbian journal, Kara Gillies, a long time sex trade activist, insists that the Almonzo findings are exaggerated. Additionally, for strippers from Eastern Europe, any form of sponsorship by way of an investment in an airline ticket and help with Immigration Canada could be construed as organized criminal behavior. In many cases, particularly those from Romania, Bulgaria and the former Soviet Union, it is impossible to tell the Mafiya apart from any other entrepreneurs. If people inside those countries cannot tell the two apart, it is too much to expect Canadian police to be able to do so either.
The degree of involvement by organized crime in bringing strippers to Canada can vary to extremes from no criminal involvement whatsoever to virtual "white slavery". However, trying to determine the reality of the average situation will take a long time. Meanwhile, it might be best not to presume that all foreign-born strippers are here as a part of a criminal network.
Curiously, the same member of the same Mafia family that approached Terry Komodorous in 1983 did so again in 1993. This time, Komodorous was told that a network had been created to bring girls into Toronto, and that police at the airport, Immigration officials and members of the Metro Licensing Commission had been induced to cooperate with the network. If there was anything to the invitation, Project Almonzo might deserve only faint praise now, for it may be six years late in responding to the new situation.
Again, prostitution is widely available in Toronto outside of strip clubs. Moreover, for a gangster who is keeping a woman under tight control, prostitution is probably more lucrative than stripping. A stripper might make $600 on a good night -- one where she has made a lot in tips by attracting customers. Tucked into a brothel (a field that seems little policed), she might make two to three times that for her controller.
Still, the police on Project Almonzo have hit several strip clubs, and closed down several of them in southern Ontario. Close cooperation with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission has streamlined the hearing process to lift liquor licenses for particularly egregious strip joints. However, the worth of the project will be seen once convictions are secure. Arrests and press reports are one thing; convictions and sentences provide the proof of the pudding.
According to the celebrated criminal lawyer, Morris Manning (the lawyer for the Brass Rail in its 1998-2000 Court case), many of Canada's laws are a holdover from Elizabethan England. They were imported and adopted wholesale into the Canadian Criminal Code with Confederation. In the control of prostitution, there are offences that merit serious jail time. For instance, a procurement offence against a person (such as forcing somebody into prostitution) merits a ten-year prison sentence. Procurement of prostitutes who are under the age of 18 can bring some five to 14 years in prison. Running a Disorderly House -- with gaming and betting occuring therein -- can bring a ten-year sentence.
However, Bawdy House offences and Acts of Indecency only result in a jail term of up to two years. So far, the Supreme Court has ruled that lap dancing is not indecent, even if touching of breasts and buttocks is permitted. Nor, for that matter, does ejaculating over patrons in a Gay strip club seem to result in a two-year term. One might wonder just what is indecent in Canada today... Indeed, between the Hachborn Decision and the Supreme Court, it appears that providing an immoral or indecent theatrical performance is not an offence anywhere in Canada (unless, perhaps, a recognizable minority is insulted during it).
Few Canadians may also understand what has become of safeguards against hard-core pornography either. This is another issue, but the average corner store now has a selection of very explicit videotapes and magazines that leave nothing to the imagination. (The 'black dots' that once blocked shots of penetration, etc. in magazines, having disappeared in Canada in 1999.) A casual inspection of the store closest to the Toronto home of one researcher found 32 videos and 43 pornographic magazines (none shrink-wrapped). By comparison, there were six magazines about outdoor leisure pursuits and three newsmagazines.
One wonders if these ancient provisions mean that olde England knew more about prostitution and crime than we do... Laws about offences against property and the person are harsh. Part of the Elizabethan heritage in the Criminal Code is reflected in laws regarding nuisance abatement. Most of the provisions pertaining to keeping a bawdy house come under this heading. As offences, they are under the absolute jurisdiction of Magistrates of the Lower Courts and are not regarded as being terribly serious. Indeed, these are "catch-all" charges to be used against nuisances when no other laws appear to be being broken. However, the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force Morality Squad has been giving these laws a very good workout in recent years at the expense of strip clubs.
Even before the Hachborn Decision, the Supreme Court was already making it clear that the only real avenue for going after a strip club lay with the bawdy house laws. Being a catch-all set of laws in the first place, the provisions allow an operator, employee, stripper or patron to be found guilty if any acts of indecency or prostitution take place on the premises. The window on indecency was being closed by the Supreme Court before the Hachborn decision; yet the laws are still vague enough to suggest that paying for a lap dance could be construed as a sexual transaction for money. Therefore, a case could be made that this was prostitution.
As a middle-class society, Canadians tend to trust their police forces and to respect cops generally. This trust and respect is mostly deserved -- our police are professional, decent, and dedicated. Extending a blind faith in police is a mistake. Cops are human too, and very capable of being irritated, taking petty dislikes, and using the laws (as they may see them) to harass those they dislike. These negative traits can apply on both an individual and a collective basis. In Toronto, the Morality Squad appears to have it in for strip clubs.
Part of this dislike is understandable. Some clubs are unattractive places; some owners and managers are objectionable people; and there is petty crime around many clubs. It is easy for the cops to tar all strip clubs with the same brush. Yet the Toronto Morality Squad was not acting alone. Some club owners feel that the relationship between police and regulating agencies like the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario or the municipal licensing bodies has become too cozy. Indeed, all three were a part of the forces arrayed in Project Almonzo.
In fact, one Toronto businessmen with an ear in the police community and the occasional foot inside strip clubs, believes that the Komodorous brothers were being persecuted because they were the founders of the association. The premises of other members of the association appear to have been raided more frequently -- including one club owner who did not even have any strippers. Other strip clubs are rumored to have received warnings about pending raids. The moral of the allegation appears to be that fine old Canadian authoritarian tradition of chopping at whomever sticks his neck out is alive and well.
Police and other law enforcement agencies also have an acute vulnerability to political influence. The 1995-96 Lap Dancing debate appears to have generated that pressure in Toronto. Some club owners argue that in order to justify political action against the strip clubs, the politicians needed to see that the clubs were indeed acting out of line. Police budgets, promotions and careers sometimes need controversy; and if the politicians believe a problem is occurring, there are cops, investigators and agents who will take the belief and act on it. This appears to have occurred in Toronto.
Several club owners, some police officers and Norm Gardiner do agree on one point about policing in strip clubs -- there is a problem with narcotics in several of them. By functioning as nexus points in society, strip clubs are attractive to dealers. Moreover, dancers do have a reputation for being magnets for drug pushers, primarily as so many of them are attractive, have money and are not well educated. Cubicles and champagne lounges are also a good place to conduct transactions. Narcotics would justify an increased police presence in the clubs. Instead, cracking down on lap dancing strongly suggests that political pressure lay behind the crackdown.
The Metro Licensing Commission appeared to have been caught flat-footed and empty handed in the lead-up to the 1995 Goldberg-Layton campaign. They were much more active by the end of the year.
In early 1996, some months after the passage of the new by-law, several dancers had been charged from various clubs. The Metro Licensing Commission declared these were in respect to offences dating from early December. Yet the Commission had informed some clubs in September 1995 that their biannual Adult Entertainment License renewals were to be delayed pending investigations of lap dancing. Like strippers, themselves, clubs have to have the Adult Entertainment License to remain open. Throughout the autumn, by-law officers were said to be visiting the clubs, but apparently had seen nothing worthy of action. Yet during this time, lap dancing was still going in many clubs -- although those that were not allowing it were still losing revenues.
When the Commission finally laid its charges against the House of Lancaster after many months of apparent investigation, there was much evidence of sloppy work. For a start, they were charging three dancers who were not there on the night that the no-touch violations were supposed to have occurred. If these were the fruits of months of investigations, then perhaps professionals might do a better job. However, the By-law officers continued to visit the House of Lancaster throughout 1996 to lay more one or two more charges on various dancers. Curiously, this activity reached a pitch in July, just before the Metro Councilors were about to settle down to further debate on the city's strip clubs.
On January 26th, 1996, a large party of Metro Cops descended on the Queensway site of the House of Lancaster -- for the retirement party of a senior NCO. In the meantime, another party swooped in on the Bloor Street site to charge four employees with both keeping a common bawdy house and knowingly permitting a bawdy house to exist. Also, 18 strippers were charged with being inmates of the same, and eight patrons were charged as found-ins.
The trial for these charges was a long time coming -- beginning in December 1996 and ended after numerous interruptions in July 1997. During the trial, it transpired that the cops had been sent to investigate anonymous complaints. The question as to the relationship between these complainants and the anonymous callers of early 1995 remains unanswered, but the suspicion that they came from the same source remains strong. Terry Komodorous appears to suspect Jack Layton's staffers, and/or Katherine Goldberg, and/or rival club owners. Nobody else is offering any suggestions, and only the latter two make more sense: Goldberg for whatever reasons triggered her campaign and other club owners for commercial ones.
In the trial, one police officer did testify that they had received a request from a named source that he refused to identify. As with the Metro Licensing Commission's investigations, there was much confusion in the police evidence. Discrepancies were also observed in another detective's notes. One stated that he had arrived 45 minutes before the January 1996 police raid, yet stated also that he had been present that evening for 110 minutes... Another officer stated that he saw a patron with his underwear around his ankles and a dancer about to slip onto a very firm lap indeed. Damning stuff, except that where the officer said he was sitting, perhaps a giraffe might have been able to see what he said that he did.
When the raid took place, there were 32 women in the club, 18 of whom were circulating on the floor. All 18 of these were arrested. However, the evidence against them came from observation by police officers some hours earlier -- when only a few of the 18 were around. Many women who were supposedly lap dancing were not the women who were arrested. In any event, all 18 were found not guilty, as were the patrons. Of the eight charges against the managers and staff, only one charge (that of knowingly permitting) against the manager was upheld, and he was fined $1,500 for keeping a disorderly house. The finding was appealed by the defendants, but the appeal has yet to be heard.
The record of 34 charges resulting in one thin conviction does not reflect well on the police. As many of the same officers are involved in Project Almonzo, it suggests that the over 600 charges laid during the project may also not amount to much in the end. For policing, it is convictions that count, not arrests.
The material from the trial re-surfaced in the December 1997 Metro Licensing Commission's Hearing into the House of Lancaster's Adult Entertainment License. There were some broad discrepancies between what the police had reported during the trial and what the Commission had thought they said. One police sergeant, who had testified during the trial that he saw no illegal activities in the club, but had observed orderly business operations, was quoted by the Commission as having observed lap dancing. The House of Lancaster still has its licenses, and the Commission has not tried this stunt since.
In the absence of any action by the Metro Licensing Commission and the Police before late 1995, it must be that neither had seen any cause to act. Later, however, each had persuaded the other -- and both been buttressed by anonymous complaints -- that such cause existed. This is a supposition, but is a likely one. The passage of the No-Touch by-law in August 1995 may have started the process, but neither agency appears to have considered strip clubs to have been much of a problem before that date.
Regarding media coverage, many intelligence-gathering organizations get about 90% of their information from news reports. Alas, Abraham Lincoln's observation about misleading the public most certainly applies to the news media. In coverage of the strip club industry, it does seem that a combination of prurience and semi-concealed salaciousness has taken the editorial helm. Although many reporters are reliable observers, the final product has been less than reliable.
No doubt, the complete accuracy of our own findings is also flawed. With a reality this complex and murky, it would take a much better light than ours to properly illuminate the whole of the industry. With this caveat in mind, we have some suggestions for reform.
There are other matters that might need the public's and the court's attention than strip clubs. If we are to debate the legality or toleration of prostitution, should we begin by providing the illusion of action by investigating the strip clubs? Might there not be better things to do?