Toronto city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7 – York West) raised eyebrows on city council May 9 when he floated the idea of forcing Toronto’s many so-called rub and tug massage parlours and holistic centres to relocate to a designated red-light district.
Mayor David Miller and other members of council were quick to distance themselves from Mammoliti’s comments, and experts have noted that in order for any plan to become reality changes to the criminal code would need to be passed by the federal government.
The group Sex Professionals Of Canada (SPOC) was also hostile to Mammoliti’s proposal, fearing that any move to force sex work into a red-light district would stigmatize workers and expose them to exploitation from brothel owners.
“His proposal to do a red-light district makes prostitution out to be immoral, like we have to be caged in some kind of zoo, and if we escape from it we might infect other people,” says Amy Lebovitch, SPOC’s executive director. SPOC has long advocated for decriminalization of prostitution without the restrictions that legalization would imply.
But Mammoliti says he’s only interested in following up on a report from city staff on how other cities have handled prostitution. That report has yet to be delivered to council.
“They’re our brothels in the city right now,” Mammoliti says of the massage parlours. While rub and tugs rarely get the attention that street sex workers do, Mammoliti suggests that a red-light district for these parlours is just a first step in dealing with sex work in the city.
“I think there’s two types of prostitution. I think the girls on the streets today primarily are suffering from some addiction. There’s a clear difference between the two types of prostitutes. You obviously have to tackle that in a different way than the illegal brothels.”
Lebovitch denied the link between sex workers and illegal drugs.
“It’s easy to generalize that when you make something illegal it goes hand in hand with other illegal things,” she says.
Media reports suggested Mammoliti proposed Toronto Island as a location for the red-light zone because it is also home to the city’s only nude beach, Hanlan’s Point, but Mammoliti denies singling out the island.
“The island theory came from the media, while I believe that every bit of Toronto needs to be studied and it needs to include the island,” he says.
The proposal was also surprising coming from Mammoliti, as he is known to be a vigorous objector to the nude beach, once even removing his shirt in the council chamber in protest over public nudity.
Island residents were also cool to the idea red-light district, according to Mammoliti.
“It just irks me a bit when I hear from the island residents… when they were the first ones to embrace the nude beach… [that they are] opposed to the idea of the red-light district when it’s well known that sex is rampant on the nude beach,” Mammoliti says.
“I still maintain that families have stopped going to that portion of the island. But if families have stopped going to that portion of the island, why wouldn’t they want to put holistic centres and massage parlours there? That’s what I think is hypocritical,” he says.
Lebovitch stresses that Mammoliti’s proposal would perpetuate hardships and stigma for sex workers by forcing them to work in brothels.
“If it was legalized, we would have to pay an exorbitant fee to open a brothel. It would be heavily taxed and only certain people could afford to open one,” she says. “We’re not a vice, we don’t need heavy taxes on us. It would limit the number of brothels that can be operated. If his plan were to go forward, the City Of Toronto would limit the number of licences that would be given out.”
Lebovitch would prefer that the law were altered to allow sex professionals to work out of their own homes and independently.
“Why isn’t it perfectly okay for me to have a date come over to my house?” she asks. “If I were a web designer working for myself, I could work from home.”
But Mammoliti says that most residential-zoned neighbourhoods do not allow people to operate any businesses from their homes.
“They have to adhere to the same laws as any one of the commercial businesses would adhere to,” he says.
No job in the city should be done under the public radar or out of the scope of public inspection, Mammoliti adds.
“I personally think that if the citizens of the city of Toronto feel that there’s actually nothing wrong with it, let’s tax it properly,” he says. “That’s why I want to have the debate. I don’t think that any job in the city should be discreet.”
Lebovitch also criticized Mammoliti for not consulting any sex workers before floating his policy idea. Mammoliti says he is open to discussing the plan with SPOC or other sex professional groups if they would like to meet with him.