Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Sex in the City: An Inside Look at Prostitution in Toronto and the GTA
Once upon a time - in the late 1970s - Toronto attempted to “clean up Yonge St,” by eliminating its many body-rub or “massage” parlours. Little did they know this would actually push prostitutes onto the untamed, dangerous streets. And those are just some of the same streets – more commonly known as “red light districts” - that make Downtown TO famous for the sex trade, and the Greater Toronto Area’s suburbs - such as Richmond Hill, Vaughan, and Mississauga - look that much safer…or so we think.
In early January 2008, a young Eastern European woman arrived at a downtown Toronto police station, claiming she had replied to an advertisement to “model” in Canada. Little did she know she would soon be thrown into sexual slavery by a team of Russian males, on her arrival. Moral of the story: Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. In other words, this woman – or anyone of us – did not see this coming, until it was too late. Unlike with Downtown TO’s flashy strip clubs and other outdoor “entertainment,” we don’t immediately see the massage parlours and escort services hidden in the GTA’s suburbs. After all, it took three months for York Regional Police to handcuff eight Ontario residents from Vaughan’s Hands from Heaven Spa.
So not only do we fail to spot these sneaky “spas” in Vaughan, Richmond Hill, or Scarborough, but the police do as well. Since the police simply lack the resources to investigate every advertised massage parlour, the GTA’s suburbs have become the location for much of the illegal sex trade. Ironically enough, though, since these parlours are disguised under unassuming names – such as the Hands from Heaven Spa - or are located in quiet, suburban plazas, we do not realize that the suburbs are not as safe, as their image leads us to believe.
These parlours are hard to find not only because they hide under innocuous names, but also because human traffickers tend to advertise these services within their own ethnic communities, so they don’t attract the attention of police. For example, traditional Russian and other new immigrant criminal organizations mostly dominate the overall GTA, while Asian crime groups specifically control a part of the GTA known as York Region. Saying that, there is a lot of illegal sex going on that even the police themselves won’t notice, and, thereby, cannot stop.
And what about the “pimps” that lure young girls into working in the suburbs’ escort services and massage parlours? Even the York Region’s vice cops say that they are noticing more and more young adolescents being “invited” to sell themselves in the region’s services. Police also reveal that these girls and their “pimps” come from across Ontario, just to work in York Region. These sex trade workers know the suburbs have a reputation for being safe, safer than they really are. In fact, these “employees” of the trade, in turn, contribute to making the suburbs unsafe. Because of these escort agencies and massage parlours, there are more pimps and more opportunities for these pimps to abuse prostitutes, behind closed doors. Also, prostitutes on the streets (i.e. of Downtown Toronto) can work - and keep their money - without giving pimps their share. But, the prostitutes who work in agencies and parlours (of the GTA’s suburbs) can’t do that, because their pimps can closely track all their calls – and earnings - from the comfort of their own offices.
Since these services are often advertised online, pimps can control prostitutes even more. Many of these parlours and agencies advertise their services on the internet, all too often coincidentally creeping away from the police’s hindsight. And since many of these parlours are in the GTA’s suburbs, this means that potential rapists or murderers - who see these parlours on the internet - are literally circulating the suburbs, which makes the GTA’s suburbs even more unsafe…
But, a world with the internet still comes with an advantage: the police can catch these pimps red-handed…and with just the click of a button, too! Then again, just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. What about those services that aren’t advertised? If a bawdy house isn’t advertised and can only be seen as a home, then police can never really eliminate it, as a form of prostitution.
But, as someone who is not a police officer, I do not know all the incidents the GTA’s suburbia has planned for us. As far as I’m concerned, there is only so much that these police officers can do. So, the future of the GTA’s sex trade industry is bleak. We can only predict the future from the facts: reality is that hundreds of women either have gone missing or been murdered. The reality is that because laws against “bawdy houses” and “living off the avails of prostitution” push prostitutes onto the streets, there are more prostitutes that don’t have security and support staff, like massage parlours or escort services do. Reality is that if all prostitutes went on the streets, these massage parlours, escort services, and bawdy houses wouldn’t exist…and then maybe the GTA suburbs wouldn’t have a reputation anymore. But, if these laws persist, more prostitutes will open themselves to more abductors or murderers on the streets. If these laws persist, the GTA will have no future.
Because of their massage parlours, ethnic crime groups, and cyberspace, the GTA suburbs are not actually as safe, as their image suggests. It is easy to see how “safe” Downtown TO is, with its strip clubs and red light districts. But, within the suburbs, it is all lurking in the shadows. While it’s true that what we don’t see may still be there, it is also true that what we don’t see is what we don’t know: and what we don’t know is how unsafe these suburbs actually are. The suburban sex trade is a mystery to us, unless we are victims of its cause.