Industry pleads for privacy as city looks to regulate body rub parlours
The blinds are always shut at Oriental Spa.The women at the Broad Street massage parlour keep their work a secret.One hides behind the half-open door that allows a soft purple hue to radiate into the foyer. Another, wearing polka-dot pyjamas in the middle of the afternoon, says she’s worried about the stigma of getting labelled “massage lady.”She said she’s afraid her daughter might find out, and call her a bad mother.“(I) don’t tell my family, don’t tell my best friend — only here,” she says.The women at Oriental Spa have something else in common. They don’t want to give massages forever.“Every girl has future job. Every people have a dream job — not massage job,” the same woman explained during an earlier phone interview. “That’s maybe one month. They are very poor.”She denies the parlour provides what the city plans to call “body rubs,” massages offered for sexual pleasure. But a web advertisement for Oriental Spa depicts women in lingerie, their faces out of frame or blurred out.“Hot Asian beautiful!!” it reads. “Best services you would love.”Whatever services she might provide, the woman in pyjamas isn’t fond of the licensing idea that came to council’s executive committee last month, as one of two proposed options to regulate body rub parlours.“If you have massage licence, they cannot find a government job, cannot find a good job, because in Canada, licence will follow you,” she said.“Very dangerous, these licences.”Privacy concerns will loom large as the City of Regina and the Regina Police Service prepare for public consultations on a regulatory approach for the parlours, which are now operating in violation of the zoning bylaw.In an industry that lives on discretion, no one wants to bare all to the city.Denica Kowalchuk has run Come & Go Massage on an industrial stretch of Winnipeg Street for the past six years. She won’t reveal exactly what kind of services her employees provide at the parlour, which can be accessed only through a back entrance and closes as late as 4 a.m.Kowalchuk said she’s been working in the industry — in various jobs — for more than two decades. She’s fine with the city’s proposal to use the term “body rub.” She’s ready to accept a licensing regime for her business.She’s even prepared for police enforcement.But she doesn’t want the same scrutiny for the women who work for her.“Privacy. That’s what everybody wants,” Kowalchuk said. “As long as that requirement is met, I can’t see an issue.”She stresses that workers don’t want to be labelled “body rub practitioners.” According to Kowalchuk, they fear it could leave a paper trail that will come back to haunt them — revealing their secret to employers, friends or family.“People do move on. They become nurses, social workers, professionals,” she said. “They want to make sure there’s nothing that’s going to stop them from getting a decent job.”At last count, there were 21 suspected body rub parlours in Regina. Critics warn they could be hotbeds for serious crime, such as underage prostitution or human trafficking. The city’s licensing proposal is intended to shine a light inside the parlours — and keep workers safe.The model calls for parlours to provide an up-to-date listing of all the body rub practitioners who work there. It would subject the premises to health inspections. As proposed, it would require practitioners to get a criminal record check and show they’re over 18 and legally able to work in Canada.Kowalchuk urged people to avoid painting all parlours with the same brush. She said the staff at Come & Go are all over 21 and work there “because they want to.” She said she’s a stickler for maintaining a safe and sanitary work environment.“You can eat off the floors here,” she said. “It’s excellent.”But Regina police Supt. Corey Zaharuk said he can’t comment on whether some body rub parlours are more responsible than others.“It’s anecdotal,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re looking for strong regulation in this regard, so that we have the ability to fully understand what’s happening within these businesses — and right now we don’t.”He advised skepticism of any body rub parlour operator who claims to be an ethical employer.“Our experience is that these businesses often exploit people,” he said. “We have a concern about the workers inside. They’re often people working in those establishments because they have no other choices, no other ways to support themselves or people who depend on them.“So in my view, it’s not a story of a good business. It’s the story of kind of tragic circumstances for most.”Zaharuk said that’s precisely why officers need to know who works in the sex trade, since many are vulnerable to exploitation. He said a regulatory framework — especially one with inspections — would help police get the information they’re missing.But he’s convinced they can do that without breaching confidentiality.“I think we can very much alleviate that concern within the sector,” Zaharuk said. “It’s not our goal to make public information about those working within the sector. The women in there, we very much want to respect their privacy.”He said police will seek feedback when they reach out to parlour owners and workers, as part of the consultation process set to begin next year.Saskatoon’s approach might show the way. It already has an Adult Services Licensing Bylaw, which governs body rubs and similar adult services. The bylaw requires workers to show photo identification, submit written proof of citizenship or residency status, and get a criminal record check.Sgt. Brent Kuemper of the Saskatoon Police Service’s vice unit said there is “no release of that information whatsoever.”“It’s 100 per cent confidentiality,” he said.Saskatoon’s acting director of community services, Jo-anne Richter, said none of the information collected from workers or performers is available to the public. But research has raised concerns that some cities may share adult licensing records with other government agencies, such as social services. At the very least, it might be open to subpoena in legal proceedings.“This information can be used to restrict access to social services or to threaten a mother’s custody and/ or access to her children,” according to a study on escort licensing by Jacqueline Lewis and Eleanor Maticka-tyndale of the University of Windsor.The woman at Oriental Spa fears her information will be accessible to border officials. She said she goes to her home country, which she wouldn’t specify, to visit her 89-year-old mother once a year.“If you go to different country, customs will check your passport: ‘Wow, you’re massage girl,’” she said. “They will have a terrible face … They’ll take your stuff, everything. Very terrible.”She also feared the records could survive and carry her secrets to the next generation.“If your children find a government job or maybe go to police officer job, type your mom, type your father,” she said.Even if the police keep all her information to themselves, she still isn’t willing to buy in. She fears they’ll give her a hard time during traffic stops.“I think that if you, Regina, have massage licence, a lot of girls go to another city,” she said.Workers must trust police enough to believe what they say — and to agree to bring their work out of the shadows. And that may be difficult when officers continue to investigate criminal offences related to their business.Police say there’s some confusion over what the proposed licensing system would actually allow. Selling sex is now legal, but it’s still against the law for a third party — like a business owner — to make money off prostitution.Licensing wouldn’t change any ofThey become precarious workers. They’re not protected by a union. They’re not protected legally, so they can be harassed.that, according to Zaharuk.“We’re not trying to allow a workaround to the Criminal Code,” he said.Darlene Juschka, associate professor in the University of Regina’s Women’s & Gender Studies Department, said that might limit the benefits of licensing. She suggested that workers will be left in a kind of legal limbo that will discourage them from asserting their rights.“They become precarious workers,” she said. “They’re not protected by a union. They’re not protected legally, so they can be harassed. The other problem is, if you’re working in the grey area, you’re not going to report to the police if there’s a problem. You just can’t, you’re too vulnerable.”But Juschka said the city’s licensing proposal is still a major advance over the status quo. It’s also better than the second option the city is proposing: Strengthened enforcement that would shut down many parlours and force others into industrial areas.Vulnerable women are more likely to face violence in places with poor lighting, no transit and little police presence, according to Juschka.She agreed with Kowalchuk that the system will have to be carefully designed to earn sex workers’ trust and protect their reputations in a society that doesn’t seem ready to welcome them as equal citizens.“If we had a social system that said this is not a big deal and there’s no moral judgment on these people, that this is a job like any other and they need not be ashamed of it, then I see licensing as no problem,” she said.“If, however, licensing means that they’ll be shamed, that they will indeed not be able to get jobs and so forth having been licensed, then I think that’s a problem.”
While a neon sign over the Oriental Spa on Broad Street advertises massages, a woman working there denies ‘body rubs’ are offered.
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