Sex and the city: Richmond 'body rub' policies scrutinized

Everyone deserves a safe work environment including sex workers, say advocates

Sex worker advocates are calling on the City of Richmond to make it safer to ply their trade.

Richmond’s policies on sex work have not changed in 20 years — despite a more progressive approach to protect the health and safety of sex workers in neighbouring Vancouver, according to an advocacy group for migrant and immigrant sex workers.

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Swan, a women’s network, claims Richmond’s regulations of body rub studios — massage parlours where it’s generally accepted sex work takes place — has made the workers more vulnerable and driven many to work in isolated and more dangerous places, for example, alone in apartments.

A man was recently charged in Richmond provincial court with several sex and violence related charges, and in his conditions, he was specifically told to stay away from sex workers. Police released Satvir Sanghera’s photo to the public, hoping more victims would come forward.

But violence against sex workers is rarely reported, especially among women whose legal status might be compromised by a police investigation.

A UBC study, released in December — based on 900 interviews with sex workers — showed that only 26 per cent of incidents of violence against sex workers were reported to police. While only 58 per cent of Canadian-born women didn’t report violence to police, this number was a staggering 87 per cent for racialized immigrant and migrant sex workers.

Alison Clancey, executive director with Swan, said she cannot understand why the City of Richmond doesn’t follow the model of Vancouver, which has clear policies of protecting the health and safety of sex workers.

“(Vancouver) now actually has the most progressive sex work policy in Canada, while Richmond continues to bury its head in the sand and pretend that sex work doesn’t occur in Richmond,” Clancey said.

Furthermore, the Vancouver Police Department has a policy that makes sure assault cases of sex workers are taken seriously and dealt with promptly — much of the language in the policy is about respect and relationships.

Clancey said her agency has been working for 20 years in Richmond on the frontlines of the migrant sex work industry, advocating for sex workers and doing outreach work in both massage parlours and indoor residences.

There are currently six body rub establishments in Richmond and a quick search on vanpeople.com — a Chinese language website for free classified ads — found dozens of women advertising in Richmond as sex workers. Swan is in regular contact with 20 sex workers here, some who have legal status and some who don’t.

Olive Bing, a Vancouver-based sex worker, wishes those in power would invite Richmond sex workers to the table to ask them, respectfully, what they need to stay safe in their jobs.

“If you can’t help, do as little harm as possible,” Bing said by way of advice.

But City of Richmond policies are doing plenty of harm to local sex workers, according to a 2016 paper, done at the SFU School of Public Policy by four graduate students, as well as other studies into sex work in the Lower Mainland.

The SFU study claimed Richmond over-regulates its body-rub studios with “restrictive” bylaws, which caused unsafe conditions for sex workers as well as their clients.

Furthermore, the regulations discouraged compliance, driving the sex work underground, further compromising the health and safety of sex workers, for example, by forcing the businesses to keep a register of employees and not allowing anyone with a sex-work criminal record to work there — resulting in less experienced managers.

Clancey wishes the City of Richmond could have an “adult conversation” about sex work, although she acknowledges the topic makes people uncomfortable. She said her day-to-day work at the non-profit is not about sex, rather it’s about labour issues.

“These are women trying to make a living, they need access to health and safety and employment standards,” Clancey said.

Human trafficking is not the issue

When police raid massage parlours, their justification often is human trafficking, Clancey said, but these investigations tend to flip on the women and they get deported instead of the trafficking issue being addressed.

“This is not where (police) should be committing (their) resources, there are many things going on and it’s rarely trafficking — it’s robbery, it’s extortion, it’s assault, it’s sexual assault,” Clancey said.

Sex workers would be more likely to report violence if two things changed, Clancey said: if the investigation didn’t get into who is running the business or if there are any rules being violated; secondly, if the focus didn’t flip to the immigration status of the sex worker.

But when immigration violations become the focus, its effect is the exact opposite of the intention “because if you arrest, detain and deport her, well, you just handed that rapist a gift to do that all over again,” Clancey said.

“I think the police need to ask themselves: who is the criminal, the woman who violates an immigration law or the guy who is out raping, robbing every night because he knows he can get away with it because police are going to turn their attention to immigration rather than criminal code enforcement,” Clancey added.

The Mayor of Richmond, Malcolm Brodie, declined to comment on this story, saying he’s waiting for a referral that is coming to city hall in the first quarter of 2020 about unregulated massage services.

But Coun. Alexa Loo, who initiated the referral, is doubling down on the Richmond rules around what she calls “brothels,” to tighten them up to make it “as hard as possible” to operate. She said she doesn’t think the city should be supporting human trafficking in Richmond.

As the system now works, she said body rub studios just benefit “johns and pimps” and don’t allow the employees any freedom to choose to get out of the sex trade.

“I don’t think licensing massage parlours is helping us,” she said,

“If you choose to do sex work, that’s your business, but if someone else is choosing for you to do sex work, then that should become my business,” Loo added.

The city maintains its regulations — asking for ID to ensure no one is holding sex workers’ papers from them and internally unlocked doors — protect the employees.

“While some of our license requirements for body rub businesses may be different to other jurisdictions, our objective is to make sure they operate in a safe and structured manner, and in a way that protects those who work there,” explained city spokesperson Clay Adams.

While the city might not necessarily have the answers on how to address this societal issue, Bing said she wishes Richmond would focus on harm reduction.

But this needs to be systemic in order to work – woven into policy. The question for her is — “does the system prevent (people) from doing good?”

The City of Vancouver policy uses a health and safety lens and talks about separating personal beliefs and morals about sex work and one’s professional duties as a city employee. Clancey said it’s “really quite an advanced policy.”

“When it comes to community safety, every community member is safer when predators are brought to justice,” Clancey said.

“If there’s municipal and/or policing policy and enforcement that is preventing sex workers coming forward to report violence, well, this needs to be examined and I think this will increase public safety for everyone including sex workers.”

At times, the conversation turns to getting rid of sex work, but Clancey said that’s an “unrealistic expectation.”

“As long as you have poverty and racism and violence and lack of women’s shelters and gender equality … until you address all that, nobody is going to be getting rid of sex work,” she said.

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