New study finds certain municipal licensing requirements and policing practices negatively impact health, safety and risk of violence for indoor sex workers

Across Metro Vancouver there are many indoor sex work venues that operate as licensed businesses, such as massage parlours, health enhancement centres, beauty spas, and body rub parlours. A new GSHI report led by Solanna Anderson based on a qualitative study with workers as well as manager and owners or indoor sex venues has shown that the process of obtaining and keeping a business license has serious impacts on the way in which these businesses are able to operate, as well as the ability of managers and sex workers to put policies into practice which promote safety, health, and human rights of sex workers. The study included 46 in-depth interviews with sex workers, managers and business owners of licensed sex work establishments. The licensing requirements examined covered aspects of the physical environment including door locks, lighting and windows, and security cameras, who is employed, manages or owns such businesses, and how these businesses are policed and these bylaws are enforced. 

The report compared licensing and policing practices of indoor sex work establishments across municipalities in the Greater Vancouver Area, and examined how the regulation of licensing has resulted in municipalities (and the related enforcement agencies) have access to these indoor environments, allowing them to monitor and control certain conditions, regardless of how the managers or workers feel it affects their abilities to operate their businesses safely. For example, some licenses prohibit the locking of the front door of a venue during operating hours. This restriction makes it difficult or impossible to screen clients before they are in the business, increasing the risk of robbery and assault. Police raids and city inspections are also a regular feature in many licenses indoor sex venues, providing a serious disruption to the venues' operations as well as being a source of income insecurity for sex workers.

Excerpts from the report:

On door locks:

"If they ring the doorbell, we would come out and see what this client is like by talking to them shortly. If they seem drunk, we would definitely ask them to leave and not let them in."

On working together, and having security measures in place:

"If the client sees that you are alone, they feel like they can bully or abuse you, and you can't defend yourself. The security camera we install in the parlour can also serve as a warning, that if the client's do not behave themselves, they will leave evidence behind, and the police can find them."

On the lack of police support:

"If anything happens, it's difficult or impossible to report anything to the police because we're working illegally. We can't really seek protection. They [clients] can still call the police on us if they want to threaten us."

Many of the sex workers and managers who were interviewed for this study highlighted that there are ways that the licensing process could be improved to be more effective at ensuring licenses indoor sex venues are safe environments. The study supports a growing body of evidence of the harms to sex workers of a criminalized and enforcement-based approach, and highlights some of the potential benefits of decriminalization, including increased safety, improved health, the prevention of violence and better relationships with police. Although efforts have been made in the City of Vancouver to begin this process (due to the work of the City's Sex Work Task Force, including consultation from GSHI), the ability of municipalities to effectively license and support access to workplace standards requires removal of criminal sanctions targeting clients, sex work businesses and third parties. Further dialogue is needed across Metro Vancouver and neighbouring municipalities to ensure that these licensed indoor sex venues are able to better protect the safety, health and human rights of sex workers.

Read a Policy Brief, or the Full Publication