Nfld. & Labrador

Unregulated St. John's massage parlours a concern for police chief

Joe Boland wants to ensure young girls aren't trafficked, and he says regulation can help do that.

Massage parlour owner implores 'stop making us out to be the bad guys here'

Joe Boland, chief of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, says he'd like to see better regulation of the sex industry to keep people safer. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Joe Boland says he's on a "fact-finding mission" to make the massage parlour industry safer for workers, and believes regulation of the sex industry will do that.

However, some who work in the sex trade are wary of any possible new regulations, fearing it may drive women further underground. 

After learning the City of St. John's can only control zoning of adult massage parlours, Boland approached the provincial government to ask for regulations to strengthen industry safety. 

"For a police service to be able to have any type of impact we have to have regulations or licences that we can enforce," Boland said.

"What we were doing really was a fact-finding mission here to see how we could better protect vulnerable people in our community."

Boland said there are no open investigations into massage parlours operating in St. John's, and the RNC is making a concerted effort to work with those in the community to come up with a plan to protect women and girls. 

The industry in general needs a lot more work to make it safer, not just the massage parlour industry.- Owner of Hush and the Red Room

"With regards to massage parlours, because they're behind closed doors — and as sad as this is to say — there [are] people in this province and throughout this country that will buy anything, especially when it comes to sex," Boland said.

"Some of that sex will involve girls, some of it will involve violence, and we know … history tells us that drugs, violence and organized crime is wrapped into this."

It is legal to sell sexual services in Canada.

However, it is illegal to advertise, pay for, or, as a third party benefit financially from, sexual services. 

Parlour owner agrees with regulation

The owner of Hush and the Red Room, two massage parlours operating in St. John's, agrees there should be regulation and that "the industry in general needs a lot more work to make it safer, not just the massage parlour industry."

However, the owner said the business self-regulates to ensure staff is safe, and feels the industry — and those working in it — is branded as criminal.

"We make sure there are zero underage ladies working in the industry," the owner said in an emailed statement. CBC agreed to withhold this person's identity. 

The owner of two massage parlours operating in St. John's agrees there should be regulations in place, but says those working in the industry must be consulted. (CBC)

"We have not once had any violent instances where people got hurt," the owner said, adding the studios have security systems and workers operate on a buddy system, "something the streets and wannabe pimps don't offer."

"Stop making us out to be the bad guys here."

Instead, they said, the focus should be on "illegal houses running oftentimes underage and abused ladies to make money off them."

Both the owner and Boland both say restricting the age would help create a safer industry.

The owner implored Boland to visit the massage parlours, meet with men and women who work there, and show him around personally "so he can see we are the safest, cleanest and most reputable place to go for safe legal services in this province."

'Don't trust them to get it right'

Boland said the force would like to see a minimum age requirement, structured hours of operation and mandatory wellness checks, among other things. 

That layer of protection Boland wants resulted from discussions with people who have worked in the industry, he said.

Some feel forgotten in the conversation, though.

We have good ideas on how to keep us safe, because we've been doing it to ourselves a lot longer than the police have been.- 'Vanessa'

"Vanessa" — a pseudonym to protect her identity — is a sex worker, who, for the last five years, has been working out of her home. She worked at a local massage parlour for about a month. 

While she believes some regulations can be agreed upon, she is skeptical. 

"I honestly don't trust them to get it right," she said.

"It's notorious for sex workers to have regulations and laws put on them without asking the sex workers, and we're the ones who know the problems and how to fix them."

A sex worker, and former employee of a massage parlour, says workers like herself should be consulted before any regulations are brought in to the industry. (Bruce Tilley)

Vanessa said she doesn't have all the answers, but regulating the industry could "push us further and further into the shadows. And people just aren't safe when they have to go to the streets."

Massage parlours tend to be safer locations, she said, adding violence can be involved in any industry.

"We have good ideas on how to keep us safe, because we've been doing it to ourselves a lot longer than the police have been," Vanessa said.

She would like to see sex work decriminalized. 

"These guys [clients] are not criminals, and you're turning them into criminals for no reason."

Moratorium stays put

Boland acknowledges it's a complex issue and the RNC has "a lot to learn," but he insists the force wants to listen, and to help. 

He said the force has a strong relationship with non-profit organization Thrive, whose Blue Door program helps individuals leave the sex trade.

But Boland said it has been a struggle to break down barriers and build relationships in the sex industry. 

"[Massage parlours] are a very secretive world and we know that because we've struggled to build that relationship and trust with the people who work in that industry," he said.

St. John's Mayor Danny Breen said the moratorium on new massage parlours, put in place in 2015, is still in effect as the issue is under study. 

Breen said the city agrees with Boland that the industry should be regulated, but said the city can only handle zoning, as per the City of St. John's Act.  

Regulation varies by jurisdiction

"We can deal with the land use, you can kind of indicate where they can go, and you're protecting the residents of the area [where we've received] a lot of the complaints in the past,' Breen said.

"I think the next step is, you can't just do that without protecting the people who work there."

Regulation of massage parlour vary across provinces and municipalities, Breen explained.

In the City of Regina, council is debating massage parlour licensing, zoning and safety. 

St. John's Mayor Danny Breen says a moratorium is in place on accepting applications for massage parlours as the issue is under study by the city. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

A meeting was held by Service NL and the RNC in February, and involved different government departments.

In a statement, the Department of Justice and Public Safety said it supports the work being done by the police.

The Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development said it also attended the meeting but the department "has not been notified of any cases specifically related to its mandate."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Ariana Kelland

Reporter

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.

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