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