How sex work has changed in Edmonton's west endBy Shaamini Yogaretnam
A look tells Kari Thomason who is in the business of selling sex. She sees a woman sitting on a bench along Stony Plain Road, and she just knows.
Temptation Massage, located at 15122 Stony Plain Rd., is one massage parlour that the new body-rub-centre bylaw amendments will affect. The parlour is on a road where traditional prostitution is a community mainstay, but provides services that will be licensed and regulated as of Jan. 1, 2012. These services are changing the definition of sex work in Edmonton. Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011. Photograph by Shaamini Yogaretnam. "She's looking for a date," says Thomason on a cool night earlier this fall as she drives across the city "tracking," or checking in on sex workers for Project SNUG, an outreach program she co-ordinates. How does she know?
"It's called "spyhopping,' " says Thomason.
It's a term borrowed from the study of whales, who poke their heads out of the water to gauge their surroundings before emerging fully. For girls on the street, spyhopping means the kind of eye contact they make as they search for a man who might want to pay them for sex.
Communication for the purpose of prostitution is a crime, but a look is harder to book. The prostitutes and johns know it when they see it, and so does the social worker Thomason.
More and more, sex workers are getting around the law in another way: by working in erotic massage parlours, where dates are arranged by appointment instead of eye contact. New regulations that differentiate between therapeutic massage parlours and "rub-and-tugs" are a signal of the changing face of sex work in Edmonton.
Massage parloursChanges to the city's massage parlour bylaw were passed by city council in late September and will come into effect on Jan. 1. Parlours will be classified, and thereby licensed, as either a health enhancement centre, which would cover registered massage therapy, or as a body rub centre, which would define erotic massage, or those centres commonly known as "rub-and-tugs."
The changes also demand higher licensing fees for body rub centres, a mandatory sexual exploitation class for business owners, and proof that all employees are over 18. Under the current bylaw, the fee for all massage practitioners is $76. Body rub centres would see that fee increase to $208 in the new year, while health enhancement parlours would pay $80.
City council's decision to make these changes reflects the large number of erotic massage parlours in Edmonton. City estimates have put the number of parlours that would need body-rub licensing in Edmonton at over 40. That makes Edmonton unusual, Thomason says.
"We have 48 rub-and-tugs," she says. "Calgary has six."
Visible and accepted
The area of Stony Plain Road between 149 Street and 163 Street has both erotic massage parlours and the more traditional street prostitution. Const. James Shaw recognizes that in parts of his beat, prostitution is so visible that it's accepted.
"It would be very rare that we'll see a call on the board for someone reporting someone prostituting or being concerned about someone, because it's a daily thing here," Shaw says. "It's more us generating those calls ourselves."
The majority of the outreach done by Project SNUG is aimed towards women who continue to work on the streets. These women have different reasons for sex work - often a need to feed a drug addiction - and face different challenges from women who work in the parlours.
Typically, body rub massage parlours are closed by 11:30 p.m. and try not to stick out on a busy avenue. They specialize in the "girlfriend experience" and target different clients than traditional prostitution does, says Shaw.
High track vs. low trackThe city's initial move to allow erotic massage parlours years ago was an effort to deal with the issues of addiction and violence commonly seen on the street.
"The city decided to establish "rub-and-tugs' because we used to have a high track and a low track," Thomason says. "Not anymore, we're completely low-track now."
The high- and low-track divide in Edmonton was actually marked by the track where the LRT comes up from the underground between Churchill Station and Stadium, off of 95 Street.
"From the train tracks south was all high track - girls who were expensive and controlled by pimps," Thomason says. "North of the bridge were girls considered low-track, gang-run, and independent girls."
Once the city's licensing came in, the high-track women moved inside, and those working on the low track moved to the high-track positions, hoping for better treatment and more security. Yet the challenges faced by each group remained with them, even though they were doing different work.
While Thomason doesn't believe that the high track still exists in Edmonton, there is a difference in the type of sex work seen throughout the city. Escort services and massage parlours in other neighbourhoods, mainly those downtown, certainly attract a different kind of sex worker and client, Shaw says. The west end, despite the number of massage parlours, still experiences high levels of exploitation and addiction.
The acceptance of some forms of prostitution in the area allows a service like SNUG to work, and for people like Thomason to keep in touch with the women working in the area.
The changes to the bylaw worry Thomason, however, in that further regulation might lead to a new low track and high track, with high-end parlours that can afford the additional fees and treat their employees reasonably well, and low-end parlours that go underground, leaving the women who work there without any regulatory protection.
Program offers Edmonton prostitutes another chanceBy Pamela Di Pinto
Every girl is different.
There's the morphine addict who's so mentally ill she can't even remember how many children she's had. There's another addict a few blocks away - this time crack - who has flunked-out of every treatment centre in the province. Then there's the "cutter" who slices herself, hoping the blood will stop johns from abusing her.
Kari Thomason has worked with these girls before. They are her "regulars." She is in the business of trying to save them.
Thomason is the coordinator of SNUG, an outreach program designed to help prostitutes get off the streets and into a new life.
As Thomason explains, the life many of these women have now is far from pretty, and even farther from what they want.
"Not one time will you ever hear, "When I grow up, I'm going to be a hooker,'" she said. "Never is that a dream. Never is that a reality. There's no such thing as Pretty Woman here."
What is SNUG?
The SNUG program was started in 2005 as a joint initiative between social service agencies and the police with one goal in mind: help sex trade workers leave their life on the streets behind.
Today, the program is run out of the city's west end at Metis Child and Family Services, who work closely with EPS.
Thomason and her co-worker Jack Kraus spend five days a week, 10 hours a day, working at the street-level with these girls, armed with snacks, condoms and two black binders to keep track of all the women they work with.
Every month, they will also run snag and snug operations, where male police officers will go undercover as "johns" to catch prostitutes. Once the girls are "snagged," they are brought to Kari to be "snugged."
This involves an interview, detox and follow-up assistance in whatever form needed, whether it be advocacy in court, counseling, new baby clothes, or something as simple as hand-holding - as long as it gets them on the path to recovery.
And of course, the girls will never leave hungry.
Good food, good people and good connections
Thomason's right-hand man, Kraus, is an EPS vice unit retiree who put down his badge three years ago and picked up a spatula.
On operational nights, Kraus can be found in the kitchen cooking up some of his specialties for the women, police officers, volunteers - everyone. They all eat from the same pot in his kitchen.
One dish that no one can seem to get enough of is his famous pickle soup.
"We've got working girls that order, "Oh, whenever the next bust is, make pickle soup,'" said Thomason, laughing. "We've got cops putting in orders."
Kraus said the most important part of SNUG - and the reason why it has been so successful - is the relationships they build with these women.
"They have to trust us, they have to know that we have their best interests at heart and they have to know that it's unqualified," he said. "We're not looking for something in return."
Street momKari Thomason, SNUG coordinator, chats through the window with one of the program's regular prostitutes spotted while patrolling the streets near the downtown core on Tuesday, February 8, 2011.
Many of these girls have never had a trusting relationship in their lives, but their connection to Thomason is undeniable. She actually grew up with a lot of them, even some that have been found murdered.
"It was difficult because those were like my little girls, and having them being found gutted and filleted is the hardest thing to take because they are like my family," said Thomason.
As for the girls who continue to roam the streets, Thomason knows each of them by name. She gives all of them her cell phone number too, and lets them know they can call anytime.
But Thomason is by no means "nice." She is a straight talker with a hard exterior, who has taken on the role of street mom for many of these girls.
"She's gives them shit when they need it, kicks their ass when they need it, she tends to their wounds when they need it, she sympathizes with them if that's what they need, and she helps them out if that's what they need," said Kraus.
Her hard-hitting approach works, too. According to Thomason, more than half of the girls who enter the program actually stay off the streets. But in the bigger picture, Thomason said it's a small victory.
"For every one girl we take off the streets, there's always two or three to take her place," she said. "That's the sad reality of it."
Nobody planned to be hereEvery girl has a different story as to how she ended up working on the streets. Connie Marciniuk, a regular volunteer with SNUG, said listening to the girls tell their stories is always a huge eye-opener for her.
"I grew up in a very white picket fence, little relatively "normal" family, so to hear those things, it was really heart-breaking to see that's how people within our society and within our culture and just human beings are treated," she said. "It's so sad and so unfortunate."
Many of the girls prostitute themselves to feed an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Some need the money to pay for food, diapers or rent. Others are put out on the streets by their own families to pay for their nasty habits.
For a majority of them, Thomason said their willingness to sell themselves comes from a lifetime of sexual abuse.
"Their mentality is, "well, I mind as well charge for it instead of giving it away for free,'" she said. "Where is the justice for these girls? There isn't."
Never give upThomason and Kraus live by a promise that they will never give up on their girls, no matter how many times they fall off.
Thomason said very few of them believe in themselves, much less expect others to believe in them. And while instilling them with confidence is the hardest part of her job, she said it is the most rewarding.
"Trying to give themselves empowerment is the biggest struggle - to get them to believe in themselves. But once they do, it's the greatest gift ever to see. They just shine."
"That's what keeps me in the game - for this. It's the joy of seeing them succeed."
And she isn't going anywhere for a while.
"This is where I belong. This is what I want to do."
Alberta Venture. Mike Sadava
Bawdy Work | A look at what goes on behind closed doors in Alberta’s massage parloursChelsea, a "real redhead" at Passions in Edmonton, is advertised as "slim and curves in all the right spots. She is a definite treat for you, unrushed and loves great conversation." Tessa in Calgary, in her online description, says: "My skin is soft and I am curvaceous. I'm friendly, warm, attentive, playful and have a sense of humour ... I enjoy the finer things in life including intimate moments, one on one."
Sapphire Massage, a "fun parlour" in Edmonton, even offers the use of the back door for clients who want to be discreet.
"Sessions" in most massage studios start at around $200 for the first half hour. Tessa in Calgary asks that clients memorize the rates and provide the cash in an envelope as soon as they meet. "I feel uncomfortable if I have to ask."
These rates are at least triple the rate for the services of a registered massage therapist, who would have at least two years of training. At that price there's something going on beyond loosening tight muscles or easing back pain.
Yes, everybody knows. Society officially deplores the idea of a prostitution business, and other businesses aren't keen on having them down the street or in the same strip mall, but massage parlours continue to thrive and proliferate. In Edmonton and Calgary there are more than 50 parlours, which is more than the number of McDonald's or Starbucks outlets.
It takes $76 and a minimum of 250 hours of training to become a licensed "massage practitioner" in Edmonton and Calgary, which is a licence to massage a person's body, "excluding genitalia," under massage therapy bylaws. Provincial regulations for registered massage therapists that would require a minimum of 2,500 hours of training are expected to be unveiled in the next year. While most of these practitioners are legitimate, many of the women who sell sex in massage parlours have also taken the training. But they can also be licensed, for $194 per year, under a "personal service holistic" category, which doesn't require the training but officially restricts touching to head, hands and feet.
A lot of legitimate businesses would envy the cash flow in the sexual massage industry. "Julia" could be regarded as the quintessential Alberta entrepreneur. She got into the massage business seven years ago to raise enough money to start her own business. Earning $300 to $700 per shift, she worked for other people for four years before buying into one of Edmonton's massage studios. Her earnings have also enabled her to buy equipment for other businesses she runs, as well as purchase a house.
And despite her activities, she has managed to keep her marriage together for 10 years and now has three children. In many ways she is a typical middle-class wife and mother, and she says her husband has never opposed it. In fact, they were already a couple when she decided to give the massage business a whirl seven years ago. "I don't talk about it - he knows what I do. It's too much money to argue over."
Julia defies the stereotype of a woman who is forced into prostitution by a drug-addict or some other form of chemically informed dependency. "I don't drink or smoke; she says. My money goes into investments to make more money." She doesn't want to have either her real name or massage monicker used so she can keep that side of her life separate from the respectable businesses she runs.
Some women go into sexual massage temporarily to raise enough money for school, like the law student who is currently working for Julia. There are also a lot of single moms who are trying to make a better life for their kids, she says.
Her studio's policy is to fire drug abusers. Julia has seen some younger women fall into that trap because they have too much money to spend.
Julia is in the process of buying out her business partner, and then she'll stop servicing clients. Her income will come from the room fee of around $30 per client charged to the other self-employed women, as well as advertising fees.
Despite "success stories" like Julia's, most Alberta cities wish that sexual massage parlours, and, of course, their cousins, the escort agencies, would disappear. Even smaller centres like Airdrie have passed bylaws in an attempt to limit massage to legitimate practitioners.
In Fort McMurray, at least four massage parlours turn up on erotic websites, but Tyran Ault, spokesman for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, says the administration is not aware of any sexual massage parlours in that city full of young oil sands workers with money to burn. "Our bylaw enforcement unit has never received a complaint regarding a massage parlour operating in the community," he says, adding that the municipality regulates escort services and adult entertainment facilities. However, oil sands plant staff and contractors are not about to spoil a good thing. "For guys who want those kinds of things, they know where to go," says one young worker.
Dealing with the issue is a conundrum for most municipalities. First of all, finding the ones where sex is sold can be difficult. Calgary, for example, has more than 3,000 businesses licensed for massage and most are legitimate. Canada's ambiguity about prostitution in the Criminal Code makes taking action difficult and expensive. Prostitution is not illegal in this country, but communicating for the purposes and living off the avails of prostitution, as well as running a common bawdy house, are offences.
Knowing that something unseemly is going on in a massage parlour is one thing, but getting a charge to stick is another. Consider what the Edmonton Police Service says on its website about massage parlours: "It is not illegal for an individual to work for a massage parlour as long as they are licensed to do so by the city. Further, engaging in non-sexual services while working for the parlour is not illegal. A masseuse who actually just gives massages is not doing anything illegal. Performing sexual services in a massage clinic may be illegal if the police can prove the clinic is a place which has as its purpose prostitution. If it is implied that a sex act is available but will cost the client extra and a discussion ensues about price for sexual services the masseuse and client are committing an illegal act (communication for the purpose of prostitution - section 213) unless the discussion occurs in a massage room. In that case, no illegal act has been committed."
In other words, a consensual deal involving the provision of sex for money is technically legal, as long as it is made in private. Acting Staff Sgt. Steven Crosby of Edmonton Police Service's vice squad, says it takes a lot of time and resources to investigate massage parlours. Police act primarily on the basis of complaints, but they keep tabs on these places with city bylaw officers and will investigate further if anything untoward is found.
Some of these places have been quietly doing their thing for years without drawing a complaint. A massage parlour in a central Edmonton neighbourhood had been operating for at least five years before anyone noticed and police were called in. "It's hidden away because people don't want to think about it," Crosby says.
Police laid western Canada's first charges last year under new criminal code sections on human trafficking, one of the biggest concerns surrounding massage parlours. Human trafficking involves far more than smuggling people into the country, but also using fraud, intimidation and coercion to force people to work. Three women found at Sachi Professional Massage Spa were permanent residents legally in Canada but had been lured to Edmonton after being promised jobs in the massage industry. Instead, they were allegedly forced into prostitution.
Staff Sgt. Colin Adair of the Calgary Police Service calls the prostitution laws a "Band-Aid" that works better for street prostitution than indoor prostitution. But 90 per cent of prostitutes in Calgary now work in indoor massage parlours, escort agencies and motel rooms, and many of them advertise their services through the Internet. "If you put it behind closed doors, it's out of sight, out of mind, and people say: it doesn't affect me anymore."
Massage parlours are zoned under the category of personal services. Therein lies the, er, rub. A hairdresser could leave a bay in your neighbourhood strip mall and a massage parlour could move in - with no requirement for rezoning. Essentially, the city can't say no.
Edmonton city councillor Ben Henderson raised the issue this winter, not with the intention of a major crackdown, but to get the city to deal honestly with the issue. "They are brothels - let's call them brothels," Henderson says. "What I'd like to do is have them called what they are, and then regulate them accordingly."
A recent report from Edmonton city administrators says attempting to regulate sexual massage parlours through zoning could be challenged in court. "The legal implications of recognizing a ‘body rub' use class may require a court challenge and a decision to distinguish between personal services and body rub services," the report says. But city administration was directed by politicians to come up with another report by the end of the year on possible ways to regulate them.
Julia says the word on the street is that there will be a special licence class for sexual massage parlours. That could boost the cost of a licence considerably. In Edmonton, the annual escort agency fee is $5,123, and $1,922 for an individual running an independent escort agency.
Henderson says that by licensing massage parlours, at least the city can keep an eye on them to some degree. Anyone opening one of these businesses, including the masseuses, must go through a criminal record check and police can scrutinize their application. But criminals can find ways around the rules, he says. They can hire front men to operate them in order to hide the connection with organized crime, for instance. Or the landlord can charge exorbitant rent, in effect living off the avails of prostitution. Henderson says that people are most upset about location issues, but he doesn't see a "magic wand" that will resolve the problem. Throwing these women back onto the street isn't acceptable, and using police to enforce a zoning issue is expensive and potentially dangerous, he says.
In the past year, two Edmonton business revitalization zones have raised enough of a stink to stop massage parlours from opening in their area. Helen Nolan, executive director of the 124th Street and Area Business Revitalization Zone, says businesses were incensed when the word got out that a massage parlour was about to rent storefront space. This neighbourhood of art galleries, restaurants and small boutiques just west of downtown Edmonton, had spent millions - split between the city and a levy on the business community - to beautify and upgrade with decorative lights, benches and trees in order to become a vibrant little area with a strong sense of community. "They [the massage parlour owners] wanted a storefront - over my dead body," Nolan says. "If people say ‘What's the difference,' I say, ‘Let's put it next door to your house.'"
After all that effort to rid the area of undesirable elements, including a drug-infested apartment complex that was converted to condominiums, the community felt that the storefront massage parlour could attract other undesirable elements such as low-end businesses and street prostitutes. "Life is perception: that's what scares me. If you get one negative thing coming into this area, it can scare people away."
The business community warned the landlord that it would picket the building if she rented to the massage parlour. She said she did not know what the intended use of the renters was, and didn't rent to the massage business. A high-end clothing store has moved into that space. Nolan says municipal hands are tied by the federal laws, despite calls for changes in prostitution laws. "If you can send a man to the moon, you can certainly get rid of massage parlours."
Nobody would like to see the term "massage" taken out of the sexual parlours more than registered massage therapists. "If you're a massage therapist, you always take pains that the right perception is there, that your client understands you're there for a procedure with a therapeutic outcome," says Marty Way, a Calgary massage therapist. Way served as president of a group of therapists that pushed the province for regulation under the Health Professions Act.
Way says there used to be a lot of confusion between legitimate massage therapists and those providing sex, but public perception has been moving away from that, and regulation should move it even further. John Lowman, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University who has written extensively on prostitution in Canada, says that 80 per cent of sex transactions are done behind closed doors rather than on the street. Closing down massage parlours and escort services would send these women back to the violence of the streets.
The victims of serial killers like Robert Pickton have been street prostitutes, not those working out of massage parlours, he says. "You do get some violence in indoor prostitution, but it's like saying that because there's some violence in marriage, then it should be made illegal." One of Lowman's grad students, Tamara O'Doherty, did a study of indoor sex workers around Vancouver and found little evidence of violence. She is currently extending her work to a cross-Canada study.
Police generally react to complaints, and the vast majority of complaints and charges are over street prostitution, not indoor sex workers, Lowman says. While there are concerns about human trafficking and underaged girls working in these places, a crackdown on 12 massage parlours in the Vancouver area resulted in no arrests on either count. "If you're dealing with human trafficking, it's better to have clear regulation of these places so you could check that."
While both radical feminists and conservative moralists say there can be no such thing as consent among sex workers, Lowman says it is wrong to lump them all in the same category. Some do it purely for survival, which is common to most street hookers. But some make a conscious decision to go into it to get out of lower wage jobs and have more control over their time. A third category is "opportunistic," doing it for a short time to make extra money and then getting out again. It makes more sense to address the problems that can cause a woman to resort to prostitution, such as poverty and challenges facing aboriginals, than turn them into criminals.
Police agree that going after the root causes would reduce massage parlour prostitution, and that it is safer than street prostitution, but deny that it is a victimless crime. Crosby says a lot of the young women who work in massage parlours initially get into it to make some quick money, possibly to pay off debts. But they get addicted to the money and continue to sell sex to strangers. "There's a lot of money to be made, but a heavy price to pay."
Julia has no regrets about the choice she made seven years ago. "As long as you're doing it safely and you're not hurting anybody, I don't see anything wrong with it," she says. She has never been assaulted or contracted a disease from her work, although she did have a stalker who got a little too attached to her. "If you got rid of the studios, it would be back to the '80s and '90s, when they were on the street. What's the point of that?"