Last week, B.C. Supreme Court heard the second of 11 girls expected to testify against Reza Moazami - a 29-yearold facing 36 criminal charges including two counts of human trafficking, as well as sexual interference, sexual exploitation, sexual assault and living off the avails of prostitution that involved girls ranging in age from 14-19.
The girl's testimony brought to light, among other things, a new trend in an old business - micro-brothels.
The girl, who could not be named because she was a 15 at the time of the offence, said she was set up in an apartment on Hemlock Street in Richmond that was well-stocked with clothes, lingerie, high-heeled shoes, condoms, a Taser and a ready supply of liquid GHB (also known as a date rape drug) in a water bottle in the freezer.
Micro-brothels have become the latest in prostitution and Richmond has seen its fair share of them, said Richmond RCMP spokesperson, Cpl. Stephanie Ashton.
Crack downs on massage parlours have led sex workers or their pimps to rent out apartments for sex acts.
"Usually we get calls from the neighbours," Ashton said. "But we can't get in because these buildings need fobs. Then, by the time we knock on the door, someone answers and they don't know what we're talking about."
In Richmond, a number of factors make it difficult to either charge somebody involved or help sex workers believed to be in the trade against their will, according to Ashton.
In most cases, workers don't speak English, and under the Criminal Code, it's only an offense if someone is under age or communicating for the sale of sex.
But whether women are working in micro-brothels, massage parlours or on the street, the issue for advocacy groups is safety and some argue the only means to that end is the abolishment of the sex trade through criminalization of johns, which will allow police to charge the men purchasing sex, rather than the women.
This is known as the Nordic model, as it has played out in places like Sweden. Police can then direct women to proper resources and social services. However, the success of this model has been under debate.
Others are fighting for the legalization of brothels such as the types operating in Richmond. The Supreme Court of Canada is currently hearing a case, after an Ontario case challenged Canadian prostitution laws.
"It's an issue I'm on the fence about," said Ashton. "I believe that anyone engaging in the sex trade is at risk. But if a brothel is run like a business, at least there's some sort of protection. There can be a gatekeeper, or a security guard. People working there know they can call the police if something goes wrong."
Opponents to legalization say it won't help the situation much. Systemic issues such as racism and sexual abuse, as well as the exposure to violence, will remain.
Although acting like business operators, women would still be dealing with men. Regardless of a security guard, during the actual act, it's still hard to prevent a woman from being hurt.
"The trade also targets women of colour in the Lower Mainland. It entrenches racist stereotypes," said Sarah Mah, who is part of the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution (AWCEP), which looks closely at the situation in Richmond.
"If you look through the back pages of the Georgia Straight or on Craigslist, you see the image of the Asian girl who's new in town and can't speak English very well. It disadvantages all women and normalizes racism."
Colleen Glynn, president of the Richmond Women's Resource Centre, also wants prostitution criminalized because of the systemic issues legalization will ignore.
"Many of these women have been sexually abused as children," she said. "And if you're drug-addicted or suffer from mental health issues, you aren't going to be able to work at these brothels. It's going to keep the marginalized marginalized."
On the other side of the spectrum, sits Susan Davis, who has been a sex worker at a micro-brothel in Vancouver for the past 27 years, pushing for its legalization.
Davis sees problems with the Nordic model, particularly with the fact that it
assumes all women are victims. To her, the majority of women entering the profession in Canada are doing it by choice.
"We don't need to be rescued, we're not all victims," she said. "It's just fear-mongering on the part of moral abolitionists. It's the oldest profession in the book and trying to end it is not a realistic outlook.
"The average age of entry into prostitution in Canada is 25. It's been a battle because myths are constantly being republished."
For example, because charges can only be pressed if it involves underage women, media reports a disproportionate amount of these court cases.
Davis believes the Nordic model isn't working in Sweden and said Canada invests even less in social services. If criminalized, the women police want to help might be left in the cold due to gaps in the system.
As it stands, it's difficult to reach women who run or work at micro-brothels in Richmond. Glynn would like to see more outreach, involving ESL courses and access to career training, but this seems implausible when women fear the consequences of admitting they work in these operations.
Instead, legalization of brothels leads to more regulation and tightened security, according to Davis. With legalization, comes standardized work procedures, more city resources and proper exit strategies that include resume training and career alternatives.
"These jobs need to be moved inside," she said. "Before brothels were being shut down, there were zero sex workers out on the streets. Now, if the purchase of sex is criminalized, all it will do is make women move to more isolated locations to conduct business and transactions will have to be done quicker, with little regard for safety."
The current case at the Supreme Courts is fighting for the legalization of brothels, but not the legalization of street prostitution. A decision has yet to be made.
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