Councillor wants Edmonton to consider permanent closure of body rub centres

An Edmonton city councillor wants the city to consider keeping body rub centres closed permanently, even when public health orders allow them to reopen. 

Sex workers say motion could push them back to unsafe conditions on the street

A sign advertises the services of a massage parlour. Those businesses are currently shuttered by the pandemic and Coun. Jon Dziadyk wants the city to consider keeping them permanently closed. (CBC)

An Edmonton city councillor wants the city to consider keeping body rub centres closed permanently, even when public health orders allow them to reopen. 

Administration is set to bring a report before councillors next month looking at the merits of a five-year exit strategy on licensing body rub centres. Coun. Jon Dziadyk will ask for that report to consider the pros and cons of an expedited timeline.

He said his request is driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"I'm not judging any opinion on what should happen. I raise the question because I've been talking a lot about what post-COVID Edmonton will look like," Dziadyk said in an interview Saturday. 

"I'm wondering if this is the most sensible time to have that serious conversation versus to have them reopen only to have them close permanently some time in the future." 

Dziadyk said his position on whether the city should stop licensing body rub centres will depend on the results of the report. His motion is aimed at expanding its scope.

But his motion has drawn stark criticism from workers who say shutting down body rub centres will drive the sex trade underground and endanger their lives, at a time of already heightened uncertainty given the pandemic. 

"There's no good thing that will come out of this. It will hurt us all," said Mona Forya, a licensed escort and body rub practitioner.

"There's no value to removing the body rub. The body rub gives us personal safety, it gives us camaraderie." 

'You can't just write us off' 

The city first started licensing body rub centres in 1994, in part to root out the involvement of minors and organized crime in the Edmonton sex trade. Now, 322 practitioners are working in 32 licensed centres in the city, according to the city's latest annual update released in September.

The program has made the industry significantly safer, said Hallie Brooks, who has been a licensed body rub worker for 15 years. CBC News agreed to use Brooks' and Forya's work pseudonyms out of concerns for their safety. 

"I choose to do sex work. Give me a building to do it in. Give me the safety net to do it in. Give me the resources to do it in. Then tax it to build the damn roads, to build schools. It's happening regardless," she said. 

Under the licensing program, bylaw officers carry out hundreds of checks and inspections on centres around the city every year. The compliance rates, for both workers and owners, are consistently over 95 per cent. 

Workers have a direct line to social services if they are looking for pathways out of the industry. Outreach nurses visit the centres on an ongoing basis to provide health-care information. To get a licence, a body rub worker must attend a course that covers their regulations and rights, particularly around sexual consent.

Brooks said the workers choose how much they charge and what services they offer, not studio owners.

As a society, we still have a responsibility to sex workers.-Hallie Brooks

It's not perfect, she said. There are still some owners who exploit their power. But oversight has made them an exception to the rule, while at the same time empowering workers to report issues to authorities without repercussion.

The fear, Brooks said, is that if you end the licensing program and shut down body rub centres, you lose the oversight and safety. Illicit parlours will survive, she said, but sex workers will be pushed to accept more dangerous conditions for less money.

Others will turn to street-level work to survive. 

"As a society, we still have a responsibility to sex workers," she said. "You can't just write us off."

Council decision must emphasize safety, councillor says

Coun. Sarah Hamilton, chair of the community and public services committee, is open to the city assessing the merits of shutting down the program on an expedited timeline, as Dziadyk's motion proposes. But she is also wary of any decision that would unintentionally put body rub practitioners in harm's way.

"I think it's easy when you're talking about something like body rub centres to speak from it from a values perspective, and that can be comfortable, especially for politicians," Hamilton said. 

"But it doesn't necessarily keep people that are working in that industry safe, and our priority should be the safety of all Edmontonians." 

The idea to explore a five-year exit strategy was proposed at a community and public services committee meeting in September. 

Several anti-sex trade advocates spoke in favour of the exit strategy, with some going as far as to suggest the city was complicit in the exploitation of sex trade workers. Others praised the city's harm reduction efforts but said licensing had made it too easy to purchase sex. 

Broadly, the argument goes that the sex trade will always be inherently exploitative and degrading, regardless of the conditions. 

But Forya, a licensed worker for seven years, said that argument fails to account for her autonomy. 

"We are constantly having to remind people that we should be allowed to make this choice," she said. 

With files from Alexandra Zabjek