Share this article

print logo

Ontario's sex-trade law mades sense

It happened years ago, but the images are etched in her mind.

Julie Grant was driven to a cottage near Toronto with another escort for a "date" with two guys. Once inside, she went to the bathroom to freshen up. Hearing a crash, she came out and saw one of the men with his hand around her friend's neck, pinning her against the wall, her feet off of the ground.

"The guy was clearly unstable," Grant told me. "Thankfully, his friend stepped in and stopped him. We grabbed our stuff and got out of there."

Shaken, they went to the police. For the next six hours, Grant said, they were interrogated -- about what they were doing, about their driver and about the escort service they worked for.

"They never asked one question about this unstable guy," Grant said. "It's the last time I ever went to the police."

One sex worker, one story. But another reason why last month's changes to Ontario's sex-trade laws -- which could take effect next year -- seem to me like a step toward enlightenment. They will make sex workers safer, protect customers and turn the force of the law where it belongs -- on creeps, weirdos and the unbalanced.

I think all of that makes sense -- on either side of the border.

"The way it is now, we can't report a bad incident or a sketchy guy," Grant told me by phone from Toronto, "because we're the ones who will get charged with a crime. Now that will change."

Oh, Canada. I am always encouraged when the law puts pragmatism ahead of prudishness. It is safe to say that prostitution, supposedly the oldest profession, is not going away. Which is why what they are doing across the river makes sense to me. It presumably will keep sex workers safer, make it harder for weirdos to hide, and legalize what presumably already goes on in massage parlors and in the backrooms of strip clubs.

"A lot of strippers become escorts," said Grant, "because they can do the same thing and make more money."

The stereotypical sex worker is a hot young thing with a wardrobe out of Victoria's Secret. Grant is closer to the real face of the business. She is 40, a single mom who supports two teenagers.

"I have [connections to] 3,000 sex workers on Facebook," Grant said. "Most of them are mothers who started in their late 20s or 30s. They got a divorce, no child support, they were going to lose their house, whatever."

Like anyone, Grant -- an official with Sex Professionals of Canada -- wants to make a decent buck and work safe. It should not be too much to ask.

Prostitution technically is legal in Ontario. But related laws make life tougher and riskier for sex workers. It is worse in the States, where laws are tighter and sex workers are often on their own. They never know who is behind the wheel of the car, or knocking on the door of the hotel room.

At worst, workers' fear of getting busted protects the likes of Robert Pickton, the Vancouver-area mass murderers who may have killed as many as 49 prostitutes. Closer to home, Buffalonian Melissa Barthelemy, a sex worker, was likely among the victims of a Long Island serial killer.

Grant said she works for an escort agency because it keeps a list of "bad clients" whom workers reported, instead of calling police. It is a safety net with a lot of holes.

"More people are understanding," said Grant, "that the current laws put us in danger."

Sex sells. The Ontario workers who sell it may soon have the law on their side, instead of in their face. It sounds to me like a Canadian custom worth importing.