Some Newmarket town councillors seemed to dismiss concerns from local advocacy groups that by cracking down on body rub parlours, they could force some women, and potentially human trafficking victims, into more underground forms of sex work.
At their meeting on Monday, which happened to fall on International Women's Day, council held a workshop on the proposed overhaul of Newmarket's bylaw regarding body rub parlours. The goal is to more clearly differentiate health spas from erotic massage locations.
During the workshop, council was presented with several options for a new bylaw, one of which was meant to address the concerns put forward by groups, such as the Women's Support Network of York Region. The groups are concerned that any effort to shut down places providing erotic massages would be counter-productive in helping human trafficking victims.
Under this option, erotic massage businesses would be able to operate openly as a form of adult entertainment, like strip clubs, with no sex being permitted.
Although no decisions were made on Monday, councillors were generally skeptical of this idea. Although the town is not allowed to ban certain kinds of businesses, councillors noted that had not stopped the town from working to successfully push strip clubs out of Newmarket several years ago.
As for the advocacy groups' concerns, Councillor Grace Simon said, "Yes, it gets pushed to the underground, but we have police officials in other departments who look after that. I think at the municipality level, our priority is to make sure our businesses are working at the highest level and that our residents are safe."
NewmarketToday reached out to the Women's Support Network of York Region seeking comment, but did not receive a response before publication.
Newmarket is considering a new bylaw regarding body rub parlours because the current bylaw is seen by many to negatively impact businesses such as health spas.
The definition of a "body rub parlour" under the current bylaw is considered by some to be too broad. Put simply, under Newmarket's current bylaw, any business that provides massages by someone who is not a provincially licensed massage therapist is deemed a body rub parlour.
The problem is that this definition lumps wellness centres and holistic practitioners with businesses that provide erotic massages.
Public consultation on the bylaw last month found that there is near universal support from the public and business owners for a new bylaw that would distinguish wellness centres from body rub parlours.
The question before council is where to draw the line and what rules could be enforced through a business licensing process administered by the town.
Licensing officer John Comeau told council staff had looked at several different municipalities to see how they had dealt with the issue; there is no real consensus, he said.
"I think it's safe to say there is no perfect licensing regime that has been established yet. This is an issue in many municipalities and no one has found the perfect solution. So we may need to create a new and innovative approach," said Comeau.
On Monday, staff presented councillors with four possible options on how to proceed.
The first option is to scrap the body rub parlour definition entirely and replace it with a new "personal wellness centre" classification.
Under this model, anyone who wants to open a massage business of any kind needs to have some kind of training. But what exactly those training requirements would be is unclear.
Anyone who can't meet those requirements would not be able to get a business licence, and there would need to be a vigorous vetting process to stop unqualified businesses from attempting to sneak into this classification.
This option is recommended by staff but they fear it's also the most likely to force erotic massage parlours underground.
The second option is to create two classifications - one for wellness centres and one for body rub parlours - with the distinction between the two being drawn from how much training the people giving the massages have.
If the employees have some training on how to do proper massages or other holistic healing techniques, the business could be deemed a wellness centre, while businesses with untrained staff would be classified as body rub parlours.
Wellness centres would no longer be subject to the same zoning, design, and other strict requirements that the current bylaw uses to dissuade prostitution in body rub parlours. The current licensing rules would still apply to body rub facilities.
This option is supported by staff and many business owners, although there is concern about creating more red tape.
The third option is the one created to address the concerns of advocacy groups.
This option would also have two classifications, but it would be based on whether the businesses provide erotic services or not. Those who don't would be wellness centres, those who do would be classified as a form of adult entertainment and would be given a new set of rules to make sure they operate safely, and enforcement would be done in line with a "victim services approach," meaning that the business owner is liable, not any of the workers.
The report notes sex would be forbidden because purchasing sex is illegal. But catering to sexual appetites would be allowed, something that is strictly forbidden currently. Criminal background checks would be required, as would health checks for employees.
Even though cities like Hamilton have taken this approach, Mayor John Taylor said allowing something like this would be a decision best left for higher levels of government.
"Shouldn't people at the provincial or federal levels have this debate on a more consistent basis, rather than us at the lower levels interpret the laws to sort of look the other way because we think it's less harmful?" said the mayor.
"I am not saying the arguments put forward by advocates are without merit, but those arguments are best addressed to lawmakers dealing with the laws at a larger level."
The last option is to simply change the current definition of body rub parlours to exclude services provided by trained professionals. However, staff warn this option would leave many of the enforcement and other problems with the current bylaw in place.
No decisions on how to proceed were made on Monday.
Some more public consultation may be done as the public response to surveys so far has been very minimal.