BY CHRISTINE DOBBY
It’s after midnight on a windy fall night and only two women are working the Jarvis strip.
A bottle-blonde in a tight black dress doesn’t get much protection from a shiny white jacket trimmed with faux fur. It’s open anyways. Further down the block, an older brunette, hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, is likely warmer in jeans. Both are wearing impossibly high, chunky heels and the younger woman takes tiny steps in her shiny, thigh-high boots.
The women make loops around the block up to Carlton, over to Church, down to Gerrard and back out to Jarvis. On Church they pick their way past the construction that has torn the street up. They both chat on their cell phones, smoke cigarettes absentmindedly and never directly cross paths.
It’s quiet tonight. Across the street from the Harvey’s at Jarvis and Gerrard — known among Ryerson students as “Hooker Harvey’s” — a red neon sign in the window of the Jarvis Market flashes the word “INTERNET” silently on the women’s path as they pass by. That sign helps explain why the solitary walk up and down Jarvis Street seems even lonelier these days.
The Internet makes it easy for sex workers to work indoors and the vast majority prefer to do just that — estimates vary from 80 to 90 per cent depending on who you speak to. That’s because sex work, especially on the street, is dangerous. According to Statistics Canada, sex workers face a heightened risk of violence and sometimes homicide.
The danger that follows the sex workers running the Jarvis strip also affects Ryerson students, especially those walking the neighborhood at night.
“It’s not the sex workers that pose the problem,” says Imre Juurlink, Ryerson’s security supervisor. “It’s the people who pay street-level sex workers.”
While security routinely deals with students engaging in sexual activity with local sex workers on campus, says Juurlink, the relationship between Ryerson and prostitution is delicate.
Female students are often harassed by men looking to employ the services of sex workers and while it can be just annoying, says Juurlink, it can also be frightening.
“When I was younger I really hated walking through the area,” she recalls.
“Those men treat all women very poorly. The things they yell are really hateful.”
But a recent court challenge seeking to make sex work safer for those in the industry by legalizing indoor work might also help make the area safer for Ryerson students. The violence that is so much a part of their lives is one that bleeds into the rest of the community. Allowing sex workers to legally operate inside would not only make their jobs, but also Ryerson students safer.
Working indoors is safer and cleaner says Monica, 41, the daughter of a drug-addicted sex worker who followed in her mother’s path and has been working in the sex industry for 20 years. Although she’s worked indoors in the past, she’s struggling with her addictions and is working on the streets two to three times a week. It’s increasingly dangerous work, Monica says; she was assaulted two weeks ago.
Patty, 42, agrees that working on the street is risky. She’s spent the previous few days dealing with the fallout from a bad date who ejaculated all over her. She had to take her clothes to the police and go through the process of making a report.
As a transgendered female, she says she’s been harassed by the police as well when working on the street. “They would call me by my boy name,” Patty says and recounts an incident three years ago when she was raped and stabbed an inch and a half from her kidney. She says the police initially doubted her story. Her attacker was sentenced to just two years in jail.
Though prostitution itself — the act of exchanging money for sex — is legal in Canada most of the activities that tend to go along with it are not. The legal challenge, launched by three sex workers, targets three of the criminal provisions surrounding prostitution: keeping a common bawdy-house, which prevents people from working out of their homes legally, soliciting prostitution and living off the avails of prostitution.
Kendra Stanyon, a graduate of Ryerson’s communications and culture program and a current Osgoode Hall law student, assisted Alan Young, the lead lawyer, with the case. She says a charge under the current bawdy-house law is serious and can lead to people losing their homes. If the law was changed, sex workers could move indoors without fear and even hire security guards for protection without worrying about legal repercussions.
“There are women who choose [prostitution] and they should be allowed to work in the industry safely,” Stanyon says.
Amy Lebovitch, one of the applicants in the case who now lives in Vancouver, agrees. She is an activist with the Sex Professionals of Canada who has worked in the sex industry for years, engaging in everything from phone sex, to indoor work, to working on the street. She saw a lot of violence on the street and says she feels safe working out of her home. She also says most people are working indoors these days.
Some critics have said that the change in this law would only benefit those working in the “upper echelons” of the sex trade, independent women with their own place to live. Lebovitch concedes that the law banning it is not the only reason everyone’s not already working indoors. Poverty is a major factor, one that won’t change overnight, she says. Some can’t afford an apartment or can’t risk being kicked out. Children at home are another deterrent.
This is why some people continue working the strip near Ryerson, running the risk of criminal charges. Lebovitch estimates that 90 per cent of the people who work outdoors are charged. Indeed, Monica has been charged in the past and is facing charges again right now. She thinks she’ll likely get a few days in jail.
But Lebovitch says if the second law was struck down, the law prohibiting soliciting in a public place, it would help protect the most marginalized people working in the sex industry, those working on the street. Without fear of arrest for soliciting, the sex workers doing the rounds around Ryerson could work in groups and gather in safe, well-lit areas.
Julia Vanderheul, who does outreach work with Street Outreach Services and the Bad Date Coalition, agrees and adds that sex workers on the street could then report violence and sexual assault without fear of being charged themselves.
But the religious and conservative groups who intervened in the case are not convinced by arguments about safety. Joanne McGarry, spokesperson for the Catholic Civil Rights League, says prostitution is intrinsically dangerous work. And Diane Watts, a researcher for REAL Women of Canada, an advocacy group that champions the role of the family in society, argues that
“Prostitution in and of itself is harmful to women.” She also argues that liberalized prostitution laws have been shown in other countries to lead to an increase in organized crime, child prostitution, drug involvement and human trafficking.
Lebovitch says these claims are “a bit hysteric.” She says that these problems already exist here and that warning that they will drastically increase is simply playing on fear and, more particularly, fear of sex. “Otherwise, all they have is morality,” she says.
REAL Women has also said that the decriminalization of sex work could make Toronto a sex tourism destination. But City Councillor Kyle Rae (ward 27, Toronto-Centre Rosedale) says, half-joking, it’s “too cold most of the year” here. He supports the challenge, noting that most people are working out of their homes and are afraid of being charged under the bawdy-house provision.
Councillor Rae says that if the challenge succeeds, it would allow the city and province to regulate the sex industry. This would benefit those who have no choice but to work on the street, including those near Ryerson, he says, because regulations around public health, zoning and access to public health facilities could be set up.
Don’t expect any of this to happen soon though. Arguments in the case concluded on Oct. 26 and a decision from Justice Susan Himel of the Superior Court of Justice in Toronto isn’t expected until next spring. Even if the challenge is successful, Kendra Stanyon says they fully expect the crown to appeal to the Court of Appeal and even the Supreme Court of Canada. The case will likely be working its way through the courts for several years to come.
In the meantime, students and sex workers alike will continue to endure the dangers associated with the vocation. Though the Internet has allowed many people to work indoors, their jobs remain largely illegal. And with the law forcing many of them out onto the street to find work, both their lives and the safety of Ryerson students are in jeopardy.
“You talk to any young woman and they’ll tell you they get hassled all the time,” says Juurlink. “Legalization only addresses some of the issues. But it will make them safer.”