Reasonable Doubt: Brothels for everyone! A new year, a new business opportunity?

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This year could be looking up for business-savvy sex workers thinking about setting up shop. Just before Christmas, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the laws prohibiting brothels, living off the avails of prostitution, and communicating about the sale of sex in public were unconstitutional. It is unclear if the government will pass new laws consistent with the charter that continue to criminalize the sex trade, or if it will legalize, regulate, and tax it like nobody’s business.

Let’s put aside the debate about whether or not prostitution should be legalized and imagine that the government does choose to legalize the industry: what will this mean for brothel owners and sex workers? Will sex workers be treated as any other business owners, or as a specialized, regulated profession? Will they qualify for a Costco card?

This has the potential to be a bureaucratic nightmare. All levels of government will want to control some part of this industry. Provinces may choose to regulate the sex trade by licensing sex workers and establishing independent regulatory bodies that could set industry standards and oversee the practices of its members. Advertising could be regulated, and health and welfare guidelines could be set. (Just imagine setting servicing standards for this industry—it would be fascinating.)

Municipalities will want to restrict where sex workers can set up shop. City councils will have to contend with some irate residents if brothel franchises start popping up in malls beside food courts.

And then there’s the tax implications! While probably giddy at the thought of the tax revenue, the federal government is going to have to establish some interesting tax policies. What will qualify as business-related expenses or depreciating assets in the sex industry? Some expenses seem obvious and clear-cut: rented space, advertising costs, condoms, lubricant—but what about lingerie? Or breast implants? Are items used for bondage depreciating equipment? Accountants and tax lawyers everywhere are probably dreaming about litigating those denied claims.

Courts have already had to rule on alleged business-related expenses claimed by sex trade taxpayers. One instance is the case of Vancouver resident Olva Eldridge. Eldridge ran a call-girl business in the 1950s and after she was arrested and convicted, the government came after her for unpaid taxes. In the 1964 decision, the court allowed Eldridge’s deductions for rent, legal expenses to defend her employees’ criminal charges, and bodyguards. The court rejected Eldridge’s claims for the cost of hiring a telephone company employee to check if her phones were tapped, and bribes and gifts to various officials on the basis that these expenses were not proven. Apparently the court refused to find that police officers and city officials were corruptible as a general principle.

Bear in mind that future brothel owners will be subject to the wrath of the Employment Standards Branch and Human Rights Tribunal as well. Employers better be paying overtime and vacation pay, and don’t even think about turning away a sex worker because he or she is “too old” or pregnant.

One can only imagine the sort of WorkSafeBC claims that would arise.

It would also be open to sex workers to unionize. Just think of the spirited negotiations about how undesirable clients will be assigned, and what ailments will be covered by extended health plans. This is one industry, however, where negotiating pay based on seniority is probably just not going to work.

Admittedly, this is all conjecture that does not consider the realities of the sex trade. Many sex workers end up in prostitution as a result of desperate circumstances and may not have the know-how or start-up money to operate a business on their own. Legalizing and regulating prostitution is not going to stop vulnerable men and women from being exploited by unscrupulous individuals. Nonetheless, there is now the potential for legitimate businesses to develop that will provide safety and security for some sex trade workers, and if that’s the case, improvement for some is at least a start. While a lot of sex workers will continue to work under the table (figuratively speaking), the option could be there for entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses and build a brothel empire.

Until the government makes its next move, however, we’re all just left wondering: who will be the first to start a loyalty program, and who’s really going to keep that card in their wallet?

Comments (5) Add New Comment
Graham Templeton
"It is unclear if the government will pass new laws consistent with the charter that continue to criminalize the sex trade, or if it will legalize, regulate, and tax it like nobody’s business."
No, it isn't. They will present new legislation well within the time limit, and nothing will change. It's fine to talk about legalizing prostitution, but don't over-inflate your reasons for writing. The musing is worthwhile on its own; no need to invent a chance of practical relevance that categorically does not exist. Harper has been very clear, both in word and deed: he is a social conservative, and anyone who thinks he has the slightest chance of legalizing prostitution is living in a fantasy. Fine for average citizens, bad for professional columnists.

"...don’t even think about turning away a sex worker because he or she is “too old” or pregnant."
Nonsense. You can turn away a stripper for being too old because it's relevant to job performance.

"One can only imagine the sort of WorkSafeBC claims that would arise."
Or, you know, ONE could do literally any research whatsoever and observe the dozens of high profile reports done in places like Nevada to examine precisely this issue, and more. You wrote an entire column examining hypothetical possibilities while ignoring that NONE of these things is hypothetical. It's like you wrote a think-piece about the effects of bail-outs while ignoring that we have actual bail-out effects right there, just waiting to be examined.
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Mullah_Kintyre
There have been thousands of sex workers across Canada for a long time, including many earning their living as independent "outcall" escorts already completely legally without violating any law at any level. Is there really anyone in 2014 still naïve enough to think the dozens of "massage parlours" and "escort agencies" in every large city have nothing to do with sex? The status quo the federal government has been protecting is nothing but a blatantly dishonest arrangement of pretending to outlaw prostitution operations, while in practice they've been knowingly tolerated and often municipally licensed for decades.

New Zealand and much of Australia have already reformed their similarly outdated laws to allow the "massage parlours" to legally operate as brothels. In reality, it's not much of a change. If you want some idea of numbers, New Zealand counted 2332 sex workers (decriminalization actually appears to have slightly decreased the number). If you extrapolate that to Canada's population, we have well over 10,000 sex workers.

While I agree that the Harper government would not want to give the appearance of liberalizing laws, I'm not sure what they will do. New strict laws would be little but an impractical symbolic statement of dogma. They're not going to put everyone in prison.
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Ray
Unionized hookers? Isn't that what a pimp is for?
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D.S.
A bit condescending aren't we?
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Rebecca Dickinson
While I appreciate the author's attempt to flesh out the bureaucratic difficulties with the possible legalization of prostitution, I think that the viscerally human nature of the issue deserves a thorough examination. In practice the legalization of prostitution leads to increased human trafficking and is morally questionable.
I understand the arguments for legalization: in theory buyers will be more likely to purchase services from "legal" sex workers to avoid prosecution, which will allow for better regulation of health and safety standards for sex workers and may also provide for increased control over stable income and the availability of social services. I understand how those benefits sound appealing, but in practice they are not a reality. In countries where sex work has become legalized and regulated (The Netherlands, Germany, and Australia) the demand for sex work (or buying sex) has increased. This demand cannot readily be met by "voluntary" sex workers and therefore human trafficking also increases exponentially. This is due to both the inevitable presence of black markets for independent profit, but also just the huge demand that cannot reasonably be met by non-trafficked workers.
Moreover, this trend of increasing demand as a result of legalization is present in many industries for example the demand of alcohol after prohibition. It seems to make sense to me that when the government says something is okay (or even good?) then people want it more. But is it really okay for the government to say that buying sex is okay!? I'm not sure sex is a commodity that should be bought. How can you really have two consenting adults agreeing to something (which I think most people would say is crucial for sex to be positive) when power dynamics of buyer and seller enter into the equation? Furthermore, I find it troubling to think about sex work as ever being voluntary-- there are so many factors that cofound agency (like living in a patriarchal society...) that I think teasing out what is voluntary and what isn't is really, really hard! And finally I'm not sure that sex is really a biological imperative, and so arguments that suggest that it is and therefore it is the governments responsibility to ensure that everyone has access to it seem tricky to me.
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