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Sex work debate continues as Newmarket starts licensing alternative massage businesses

Advocacy groups differ on characterization of massage parlours; police say human trafficking happening more elsewhere
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The heated debate over Newmarket’s masssage parlour bylaw is raging on as the town starts to issue its first licences for alternative massage businesses.

The town announced open applications for its new “personal wellness establishment” business classification Feb. 25, meant for alternative massages done by those other than registered massage therapists. The rules were put in place in part to address community concerns over allegedly illicit massage businesses selling sexual services.

But some Asian advocacy groups have maintained that the regime is unfairly burdensome and encourages hatred of Asian massage workers, both erotic and not. Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly — a Toronto-based Asian and migrant sex worker support network — advocated against the bylaw and said some Asian businesses in Newmarket have struggled with the licensing bylaw due to staff resources and challenges proving qualification. 

“It creates a lot of stress, creates a lot of confusion and challenge for the worker (and) business owner,” she said. “We still don’t know whether they will be approved.”

The bylaw imposes more regulations for such businesses, requiring them to provide information and prove training or qualification for employees or face penalties.

Some advocacy groups have said such “body rub parlours” are places for illicit selling of sex and human trafficking. But Toronto-based Asian advocacy groups have pushed against that characterization and said the law would only further marginalize Asian workers.

Town of Newmarket manager of regulatory services Flynn Scott said the town has issued three licences, with seven under review and none rejected yet.

Scott said the process has worked well so far, and the town has made efforts to address language barriers by translating the documents and contracting a professional translator for any in-person discussions throughout the process.

“Overall, the town has offered a number of flexible options to business owners and attendants to ensure that language is not a barrier during any phase of this process,” Scott said. 

BridgeNorth is a Newmarket-based charity aiming to end sexual exploitation. Founder Casandra Diamond has spoken publicly about her experiences and said she was trafficked and exploited in massage parlours.

Board member Kevin Wilcox said it is too early to know the impact of the bylaw, one month in. But he said it has led to some positive developments in political and policy conversations regarding how municipalities can impact the issue.

“That’s a very positive thing,” he said. “I’m glad that municipalities are having this conversation.”

One of these conversations occurred in York Region when Parents against Child Trafficking Markham Richmond Hill asked the region’s other municipalities to bring in bylaws similar to Newmarket.

But a subsequent report from York Regional staff pushed back against the characterization of massage parlour sites as places for human trafficking and questioned targeting them.

"An approach which purports to eradicate sexual exploitation, and sex trafficking by focusing primarily on localized prohibition, interdiction and enforcement related to adult entertainment enterprises would have a limited effect compared to what is already in place,” the report said, adding York Regional Police finds trafficking tends to be more in hotels or short-term rentals.

“Focusing on 'eradicating' body rub parlours as a means of combating sex trafficking or protecting children is not an effective strategy".

Diamond said she believes York Regional Police does a good job, but pushed back on the report, citing some news stories about their past massage parlour raids. She said municipalities also lack enough support from the province to address the issue.

“Municipalities do not have any support whatsoever, and they’re really just on their own trying to figure this huge problem out," she said. 

In response to the report, Scott said the “bylaw was not created to address human trafficking, which is a complex issue outside the scope of municipal law enforcement."

“As a town, our aim with the personal wellness establishments bylaw was to provide a licensing framework to give us tools to shut down illegal activity in our community which was impacting neighbouring businesses and community members,” he said.

Scott said the town is not aware of any businesses that have voluntarily closed due to the bylaw yet. It said it would proactively investigate any businesses circumnavigating licensing requirements but would not track data on the linkages to human trafficking, “which is a criminal matter and under the jurisdiction of regional police.”

However, trafficking and sex work were both brought up by councillors during the bylaw discussion in support of new measures. Councillor Trevor Morrison said last January that such sites can be used for human trafficking, and councillors are “determined to act quickly on our responsibility to eliminate human trafficking from Newmarket.” 

Both Mayor John Taylor and Deputy Mayor Tom Vegh also spoke out against sex work in bylaw discussions last May. In response to concerns that it could drive the sex trade underground, Vegh said they want to “drive it out of town.”

Wilcox said BridgeNorth is opposed to the sex trade, but it comes from wanting to end sexual exploitation, adding it is not from moral puritanism. He said voluntary consent to the industry is low, “and that suggests something structurally about the industry itself, not about the way that it is regulated, from our perspective.”

BridgeNorth tries to help individuals exit from trafficking and exploitation. When asked about helping those locally who may be impacted by the bylaw — if human trafficking is at these local sites — Diamond said she is interested in providing educational tools and resources over punitive enforcement.

“This has to be figured out from a very culturally sensitive perspective,” she said. “How are we effectively speaking to people in a culturally sensitive and competent way that actually allows them to have choice and power.” 

But Lam said efforts to end sex work are wrong-headed and fail to support workers, adding she feels sex work is being wrongly conflated with human trafficking. She said the policy should “ensure the customer and worker safety instead of imposing a moralistic agenda.” 

Lam and other advocates have said the bylaw is effectively racist in its targeting of massage parlours and stands to stoke hatred and racism against Asian sex workers. 

“The whole attitude of calling the Asian massage parlour as illicit service, they need to get rid of. Racial profiling, racism on the enforcement level, that is what we are concerned about,” she said.