'They do so much to keep us girls safe': Body rub worker calls on city to maintain licensing

City councillors are mulling the merits of an exit strategy from licensing body rub parlours, but some women who work in these businesses say a harm reduction approach helps them.

City's harm reduction approach to body rub parlours could change

The City of Edmonton currently licenses 32 body rub parlours but councillors have asked for a report on an exit strategy from the practice. (CBC)

Fourteen years ago, Hallie Brooks walked into a city office to apply for a licence to work at a body rub parlour.

"It was so weirdly uncomfortable," said Brooks, which is not her real name. "And even though you had all of the things they required, they would try to deny you the licence. That's just because they simply morally didn't agree with you.

"It was always 50-year-old women who were just judging you behind their glasses."

A lot has changed since then, in how the sex trade operates in Edmonton and how it's regulated. For the past four years, the city has taken a harm-reduction approach to body rub parlours — with everything from social services workers who do outreach to women to a designated counter at city offices for those applying for licences. 

There is a huge group of us girls who are being assumed to be exploited when that's not true.- Hallie Brooks

There's no judgment, which is important for women who want to trust the system that regulates their work, Brooks said in a recent interview.

But at a committee meeting last month, city councillors supported a motion that would pivot sharply away from that model. The motion asked for a report on "the merits of a five-year exit strategy on licensing body rub centres." 

For Brooks, the city's efforts at outreach and regulation have been "amazing," including a course that all practitioners must take in order to acquire a licence. 

"I will say I was shocked at how amazing it was. I thought that I was going to be like, 'OK, I just need to get through this.' But it is so informative, and they do so much to keep us girls really safe."

Brooks knows there is a lot of stigma around the work she does — it's why she won't use her real name in this article, and why many women who work in the industry don't come forward at council meetings. 

But the end result, she said, is their voices aren't heard.

"So decisions are being made for us and assumptions are being made by people that actually don't have a clear idea," she said. "The intent is goodwill. But there is a huge group of us girls who are being assumed to be exploited, when that's not true."

'We can decrease demand'

At times, the discussion at the Sept. 18 community and public services committee meeting was tense. Susan Holtby, an advocate against the sex trade in Edmonton, made one of the most passionate statements to councillors.

"I'm tired of the euphemism of 'adult services,'" she said. "I'm tired of the euphemism of 'erotic services.' I think we need to stop sticking our head in the sand and do something about it.

"We can decrease demand. We can have men ID'd. We can have police go in and charge; we can publish the names like London, Ont., does of men who have been charged with trying to buy sex. I think we'd get a whole lot of societal decrease in acceptance of sex buying."

The argument being put forward is that all sex work exploits women. And the city, by licensing such establishments is, at best, making it easier to buy sex, which inherently hurts women.

At worst, the view is, the city is complicit and profiting from sexual exploitation.

This billboard, located in Edmonton's Ice District, is part of a national awareness campaign. (Susan Holtby)

The city has been licensing body rub parlours since 1994, and there are currently 32 licensed establishments in the city. In the past four years, the city has beefed up its harm reduction approach, which includes a team of social service workers and bylaw officers who work together and offer translation services whenever needed.

"We've done good harm reduction but we've made it really easy to buy sex in a variety of venues," Kate Quinn, executive director of the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation (CEASE), said at the meeting.

"We have to confront the harm that continues and why it continues."

The goal is to decrease the demand for paid sex, she said, through education about the harms it can cause women and by decreasing any societal acceptance for it. CEASE has worked tirelessly for that goal for years, and helps women exit the industry through access to education funding and other supports.

But Brooks said the abolitionist approach to sex work denies the agency of women who choose that work.

"Not every person has the connection to monogamous sex the way some people do," she said. 

"That's all a perception on how you view and value sex. So if you don't have the same values, you might not be able to understand. But I don't believe in monogamy. So to me, this isn't anything that's hard to do."

"Not every person has the connection to monogamous sex the way some people do."​​​​- Hallie Brooks

Brooks said she started in the industry as a teenager. She acknowledges that, at the time, she was exploited. But after going back to school, working different jobs, she decided to start working in body rub parlours.

In part, she said, it's about the money. In part, it's about the relative freedom she has with her schedule. And in part, she said, she does feel a connection to clients who she said have treated her well.

"We all have this perception that — people use the word 'prostitutes' — are these back alley kind of girls with thigh-high boots that have drug issues. But now you have a huge demographic of women who are absolutely straight-laced, drug free, alcohol free and that are still choosing to do this work. Like, I don't even smoke cigarettes."

Cities struggle with licensing

Edmonton is not the only city in Canada wrestling with its role in licensing or regulating body rub parlours.

Jairan Gahan is an assistant professor at the University of Alberta who teaches a course on the global history of sex work. She noted that sex work is criminalized in Sweden, but legal in Germany.

"There's a huge demand from Sweden that has been directed toward Germany in terms of the market of sex. When you criminalize or try to abolish sex work, what happens is that sex workers are going to go to another city. This is their means of survival.

"They're just going to move around and their clients are going to move around with them."

A report on the merits of a five-year exit strategy for licensing massage parlours is due next year. Councillors also asked for information on strategies to reduce the demand for such services.