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Indoor Sex Work—Is It Safer For Everyone?

Prostitution has moved indoors, which means safety for sex workers and privacy for clients. But what does that mean to your neighbourhood?
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Brian Stauffer

Prostitution has moved indoors, which means safety for sex workers and privacy for clients. But what does that mean to your neighbourhood?

Another gloomy afternoon in November. The only relief comes from the glow of a nearby convenience store and, further down the street, a few perky mom-and-pop-type ethnic eateries and an insurance office. There is one bright spot on this nondescript block of Hastings Street: a string of white lights circling a brightly lit Open sign on a clear glass door that, if you were driven to enter, then to climb the meagerly carpeted red stairs, pass through the shabby office with its small Christmas tree, greet the manager, and be led into the warren of hallways and rooms beyond, would deliver you to Christine, who would be happy to explain to you how she ended up offering hand jobs for a living.

“First I try to find another job,” she says in English that is colloquial but still accented despite studying hard with a Taiwanese professor at Metrotown. “But I could only get, like, fast food part-time.” A friend told her about this place.

You mightn’t guess her profession to look at her. A tiny woman, she wears sheepskin-lined slippers and something that looks like a lab coat over black stretch pants and a low-cut tank top. No lipstick, no eye shadow, no makeup (except giant false eyelashes) on her round, friendly face. No rings, no nail polish, no earrings. For an hour of her time, I have paid her a $60 “tip,” plus to the manager the standard rent of $60 (as specified on the office’s wall chart) for the room, with its leopard-patterned couch, cheap wood panelling, single bed with bright green and blue quilt and then towel on top, TV with doily, and (getting down to business) tray with tissues and hand cream.

Both Christine and her husband—factory workers in a big government operation in their hometown of Shanghai—came to Canada four years ago. He eventually went back, discouraged, unable to find work. She decided to stay on, fed up with China and the way people can’t do what they want. “There, you have no opportunity to make money. We worry about our future. Canada is a nice country. They follow the law.”

 

The job isn’t too bad, she insists. “It’s not like some people think. It’s work like the same in restaurants.” From time to time, a guy shows up drunk. They’re disgusting and sometimes weird. But she gets to choose who she goes with and how far she goes (mostly hand jobs—“Someday we still want to go back to family, find a boyfriend or husband”—but if she likes the guy, maybe a bit more). “Some drunk says, ‘Put it in your mouth.’ I say no. We don’t want to get too dirty.” The manager, a tall woman wearing an overcoat in the chilly office, is there for backup. And the other women are okay, though there are only two or three at a time at this particular massage parlour, which doesn’t get the high volumes of bigger, fancier, more central places.

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