Q&A: Legalizing brothels and taking the sex trade indoors

The Ontario Court of Appeal has struck down a ban on brothels. Ronald Weitzer, a professor of sociology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and an expert on the sex industry, speaks to CBC about the issues surrounding legalizing brothels.
Geisha, a prostitute working at the Chicken Ranch brothel in Pahrump, Nev., rests in her bed on March 31, 2009. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

The Ontario Court of Appeal has struck down a ban on brothels. The judges ruled that prostitutes should not be forced to work solely in dangerous enviornments, and should be able to pay staff to help keep them safe.

Other countries like New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands have adopted a similar stance on regulating sex workers and their trade. Some states in Australia also have lifted restrictions and decriminalized brothel prostitution.

Ronald Weitzer is a professor of sociology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and an expert on the sex industry. His book, Legalizing Prostitution from Illicit Vice to Lawful Business, focuses on the issues surrounding legalizing prostitution.

CBC News spoke to Weitzer about what has happened in other countries after brothels were legalized.

CBC News: How is brothel prostitution different than street solicitation?

Weitzer: Unlike street prostitution, where it is one woman getting into a car or going down an alley by herself where she is more vulnerable, whenever you talk about an organization like a brothel or a massage parlor or even a bar where prostitution occurs, there are managers and other co-workers who can intervene in case of a problem with a client. So that is one major difference between indoor and outdoor work.

Ronald Weitzer's most recent book focuses on the legalization of prostitution. (Amazon)

The second would be the amount of time that is committed in these two different contexts. So, with street prostitution, the entire encounter from beginning negotiations to the end can take 15 minutes — it is usually not very long at all. During that time, there is little conversation, it is basically a ‘mechanical’ encounter for the most part.

Whereas indoors, usually these appointments are at a minimum of an hour, if not longer. There are many more opportunities for other kinds of activity: conversation, sharing, other types of intimacy occurs over and above the sexual activity itself. So that renders what happens indoors qualitatively different than what typically goes on in the street.

Victimization is reduced with other parties present, and often in brothels they have alarm systems, maybe a hidden camera at the entrance and other screening techniques that the receptionist or the manager will engage in prior to the man or client even getting in the door.

Where else in the world are brothels legal?

In Germany it is left up to the state, so different state governments have different policies and regulations. In [the German state of] Bavaria, it is mandatory to use condoms, whereas in the rest of Germany where brothels are legal and regulated, that is not one of the features. It is recommended and they are encouraged to use them, but there is no actual prohibition on not using them like there is in Bavaria. So Germany differs by state.

In 2000 in the Netherlands, they decriminalized and legalized prostitution. Prior to that it was tolerated and regulated to some degree but not officially legal, so any third party in Holland prior to 2000 who ran a brothel or a massage parlour or escort agency was technically committing an illegal act. In 2000, it became legal, but they had to get licenses. In 2003, New Zealand decriminalized prostitution, the Parliament voted with just a one-vote majority to decriminalize prostitution — and that applied across the board from indoor to street prostitution.

What effect do legalized brothels have on surrounding neighbourhoods?

New Zealand stands out, and many analysts would say, as a success case. But, New Zealand is unique as well — it is an island, it’s remote, it’s hard to get to in terms of immigration or trafficking issues. It is not conducive to that unlike Europe is with its porous borders and people can move around easily.

Most cases usually have deficiencies and advantages over the previous criminalized system and sometimes you have to be careful because claims are made by politicians and the media that aren’t anywhere close to reality and you have to distinguish those claims and whether or not there is an evidence basis for them from what the evidence shows. 

A sex worker, centre, is seen in Amsterdam's red light district on Dec. 6, 2008. (Peter Dejong/Associated Press)

For instance, in the Netherlands some opponents of legal prostitution [since it became legal in 2000] have been claiming that trafficking has been going up. There is no real evidence for that claim, and the trafficking office with the government says that is not true as well.

Nevada is one state in the U.S. that has had legal brothels, only brothels and only in the rural areas, for 40 years — since 1971. They have had these legal brothels spread around the rural counties and it's worked well. They are very tightly regulated and some people who work there would only work there for a short time, and then they would find the regulations too restrictive — in terms of when they can leave the house, what they can do in the house.

I think there are about 30 legal brothels in 11 counties in Nevada, with about 300 sex workers total spread around the state — rural only. It becomes much more complicated when you try to graft that onto an urban setting. It works well when they are isolated, invisible, not on the main roads, and they are out of sight. It has existed in its current state for about 40 years, so it shows that legal prostitution can be run in an effective way without causing serious community problems if it is organized in a productive way — which is not always the case.

How does a prostitute get a place in a brothel?

Some women and men — there are male brothels, but they are less formal — would not want to work in a brothel because they would find the rules that are imposed by management too prohibitive and/or they would want to keep all the earnings for themselves. Escorts and brothel workers usually have to give 40 to 50 per cent of their earnings to the management. By operating independently, prostitutes can control their own working conditions, they aren’t working for a manager and they can keep the entirety of their earnings.

Women get recommended by girlfriends. They do research and find out about them and then go for interviews just like any other job; they also might meet someone who is working there and are invited for a trial period. We don’t know a lot about how prospective brothel workers get involved, but for places like Nevada, they learn about it somehow, and then reach out to the brothel management.

A lot of people, when they think of brothels, think of what they have seen in movies and television shows. How do the real ones compare?

There are both similarities and differences to the old or stereotypical kind of brothel. One hundred and fifty years ago, you could have the same kind of recreational dimension — so a bar or men smoking cigars or playing pool with women walking around — these kind of brothels did exist in Canada, the U.S. and Europe historically — where there was more of a collegial or relaxing entertainment kind of ambience in the establishment. You have those parallels with the past on the one hand.

But, in terms of what has changed, the internet has changed [brothels] a lot. Clients can find establishments much easier today than they could in the past — I mean how would you find a brothel, especially where they are illegal, 50 years ago … it must have been laborious. Today, you can go online and you can Google ‘Toronto brothels’ and who knows what will come up.

There is this new term, "the girlfriend experience," which some clients are looking for. It is a more comprehensive encounter with someone than just sex. Clients are looking for that and people who work indoors advertise themselves that way as providing a broader, more comprehensive, more intimate and more intelligent experience than what occurs on the street. So this "girlfriend experience" was desired by men in the past, but it just wasn’t called that.