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June 25, 2007

Making sex work safe

Posted by Ariel Troster at 02:29 PM ET

goodhandys cropped.JPG

I just returned from Toronto's gay pride celebrations, and I was so thrilled to spend a few hours on Friday night at Goodhandy's, Toronto's "pansexual playground." The bar is only one year old, but in that short period of time has established itself as a gathering place for trans people and their allies, alternative burlesque performers, feminist activists, queer musicians, and sex workers. It's rare to find a space that serves so many functions, and proves that diverse communities can co-exist in harmony.

The bar, which hosts more mainstream musical events and dance nights, also features a members-only Diamond Room, where sex workers (largely trans women) can entertain clients in a safe space -- one that is protected by a security guard and, thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, shielded from raids by the cops.

In December 2005, the Court overturned the conviction of Montrealer Jean-Paul Lebaye for running a "common bawdy house" for the "practice of acts of indecency" after police busted his club, L'Orage, in 2000.

"Consensual conduct behind code-locked doors can hardly be supposed to jeopardize a society as vigorous and tolerant as Canadian society," wrote Justice Beverly McLachlin at the time, opening the door for the establishment of businesses like Goodhandy's.

But the refreshing thing about Goodhandy's is that the owners don't try to hide the fact that the space is used as a meeting place for sex workers and their johns. In fact, they celebrate this fact, and recently started opening at 4pm on Thursdays, "to develop an after-work crowd of businessmen who want a discreet chance to meet t-girls," according to co-owner Todd Klink.

As it is, it's quite difficult for sex workers to find clean, safe spaces to work in, where they aren't likely to be harassed by bad dates or by the cops. The Sex Professionals of Canada are currently launching a constitutional challenge to Canada's solicitation laws, which they say are discriminatory and expose sex workers to danger. They recently held a fundraiser to support their cause at -- where else -- Goodhandy's.

After spending some time in a space that represents a real jewel in the crown of the sex workers' rights movement, I was disturbed to read this police bulletin about a recent "prostitute/john sweep" in my neighbourhood (Hintonburg, an inner city community to the west of downtown). My 'hood has a history of anti-sex worker vigilantism, which I took to task in a recent column for Capital Xtra.

How long will it take for the Ottawa police and city officials to realize that criminalization of sex workers only exposes them to further abuse and mistreatment?

Hooray for Goodhandy's for supporting Toronto sex workers. Is anyone in Ottawa willing to make a similar statement?

-- Cross-posted to Dykes Against Harper

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Reader comments:

The Diamond room is now free of charge/no membership required on two nights per week, just for info for readers.

Posted by: evan at June 25, 2007 07:01 PM


My one disagreement here (or maybe just with your Xtra column) would be the characterization of people active in their neighbourhood as vigilantes. There are lots of good, valid reasons to not want street prostitution on your street, many of which are the same safety concerns we should have for the sex workers themselves. Who enjoys spotting a used condom on the sidewalk when they're out walking with their kid?

The anti-street-prostitution debate attracts a great diversity of viewpoints within any inner city. It is too easy to depict anyone concerned with home-safety or neighbourhood attractiveness as some closed-minded NIMBYist.

This reminds me of a current debate in Toronto's Parkdale, in which some residents are protesting the establishment of a drug-treatment residence on a prominent corner. Their argument is that by importing a new, non-resident, challenged population into the neighbourhood Parkdale is being intentionally ghettoized by City Council so that other neighbourhoods will not have to participate in the city's more troubled streetlife. They are not saying a drug-treatment residence is not necessary or not good or something they absolutely can't live with because it will destroy their property values; they are wondering why their neighbourhood has been unofficially designated as Toronto's clinic. It's a provocative question about the city.

Posted by: john_d at June 26, 2007 09:52 AM

Good point, John. I tried to be careful not to pigeonhole all concerned citizens in my column, but maybe it didn't get across ... I have certainly benefited from the work that previous neighbours did when Hintonburg was much more rife with crack houses and needles/condoms in the streets. But I do believe that the only way to solve these problems is by working with sex workers on common solutions. In Montreal, the sex workers' group Stella is extremely well-organized and articulate. There is no similar group in Ottawa.

It sounds like the current debate in Parkdale is a lot like on I witnessed in Montreal's Centre Sud neighbourhood in 2000. At the time, the police were proposing a prostitution pilot project that would have decriminalized sex work in a specific area, sending social workers out with the cops to deal with complaints.

The residents of Centre Sud basically revolted and the proposal got killed. They were concerned that a community that was already poor and ignored would become even worse if it was designated as a red light district.

But sadly, a lot of the criticism was NIMBY-ish (new condos were going in everywhere, pitting poorer residents against more affluent ones), and after the project was killed, violence against sex workers in the neighbourhood went way up. A few angry people took their frustration with the consultation process out on the street, and beat up some street prostitutes. It was awful.

No one has dared to attempt a project like that in Montreal since then. A real shame.

Posted by: Ariel at June 26, 2007 11:32 AM

>>Their argument is that by importing a new, non-resident, challenged population into the neighbourhood Parkdale is being intentionally ghettoized by City Council so that other neighbourhoods will not have to participate in the city's more troubled streetlife.

To me, this raises the question "who does the neighbourhood belong to?" A lot of people currently in Parkdale (more so than some other neighbourhoods) would really benefit from direct access to a drug-treatment centre.

Lots of questions, no easy answers of course.

Posted by: shawnsyms at June 28, 2007 10:26 AM

Yeah, I think it goes a bit deeper than that, Shawn. The fight itself, I believe, is not over a treatment facility, but an attached residence. I don't think anyone is arguing against Parkdale's needs -- all of its needs. I think what is being protested is the "idea in action" that if the city wants to address its troubled, street drug population we should cart them all off to live in Parkdale, since so many already live there.

As cynical as NIMBYism generally is, and we've all run up against it, this kind of planned ghettoization seems even more cynical.

Posted by: john_d at June 28, 2007 10:42 AM

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