OTTAWA – Before she became a part-time prostitute late last year, 24-year-old Krissy Summers was looking up at a mountainous $25,000 student loan from the University of Michigan.
Seventeen weeks later, she was debt-free. And drug-free, disease-free and bruise-free – not to mention free to leave the world’s oldest profession whenever she felt ready to go back to school, this time for a master’s degree.
“All my money is going to my student loans and furthering my education,” Summers says from North America’s most infamous – and legal – chain of brothels, the Bunny Ranch in northern Nevada.
“None of my money is going towards drugs. I don’t even smoke cigarettes. I barely even have a glass of wine.”
Summers’s employer, Bunny Ranch founder Dennis Hof, says women like Summers, one of the 500 “independent contractors” that staff his six legal brothels in Nevada, are the living embodiment of the merits of legalized prostitution.
Hof, who is keen to expand his brothel business into Canada, said he’ll be watching Thursday when the Supreme Court of Canada hears arguments on whether the country’s prostitution law is unconstitutional and ought to be struck down.
“We’re watching closely because the second we see it’s going to be legalized, like it should be, the Bunny Ranch will be there, and we’ll be there in force.”
Last year, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down a section of the law that forbids brothels, so justices from Canada’s top court will consider a raft of arguments from more than a dozen intervener groups that will determine the future of the country’s prostitution law.
The lower Ontario court upheld a ban on communication for the purposes of prostitution, which effectively makes street prostitution illegal.
Three Canadian sex workers and their activist lawyer, Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Young, are driving the court challenge for legalization: retired dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, former prostitute Valerie Scott and Vancouver sex worker Amy Lebovitch.
They have no shortage of female allies, including university professors who argue Canada’s prostitution laws are archaic, and health advocates who say the stigma of criminalization exposes women to HIV and other diseases.
Another coalition of women’s groups opposes them: The Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution argues that men are the main benefactors of the sex industry – as pimps, customers and brothel owners.
They argue that the law should be changed to make it illegal to be a pimp or a customer, but not an actual prostitute. The sex industry in Canada, they say, has victimized young women, many of them underage, forcing them into a life of drug addiction, physical and sexual abuse, and essentially slavery in an illegal industry from which they are unable to break free.
The coalition is made up of seven organizations that work on the streets and behind bars with women at the bottom of society’s pecking order. It includes the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.
Diane Matte, head of a Quebec group dedicated to ending sexual exploitation, says the coalition’s proposal is based on the so-called “Nordic model” of prostitution legislation adopted in Sweden, Norway and Iceland, which criminalizes pimps and johns but protects prostitutes from prosecution.
Hof scoffs at the idea. In practice, he says, it simply won’t work.
“You’re tying to curtail a natural urge of a man. Give me a break.”
In a recent press conference, Matte took the unusual step of accusing Young, the lawyer challenging the law, of essentially being a shill for the sex industry, and not a civil libertarian or a human rights activist.
Young declined to comment for this story.
Matte says that the fact that a large operation like the Bunny Ranch is declaring its desire to come to Canada should be cause for alarm.
“So we have to be clear, the industry is just waiting to expand.”
Hof says his business will help protect Canadian women, and put the dangerous pimps and their criminal bosses out of business, while also ridding the industry of underage, drug-addicted, abused girls.
As well as lowering the crime rate, Hof says legalized prostitution would be an economic winner in Canada. In parts of Nevada, prostitution is licensed – and taxed. Last year, Hof says he paid $500,000 in taxes, making him the No. 1 taxpayer in his county.
“By not allowing legal brothels, what you’re doing is you’re enabling the criminal element to thrive. You’re enabling girls to be exploited,” he says.
“A pimp doesn’t want to spend money for sexually transmitted diseases. It cost money. He doesn’t want to keep girls off of drugs. The opposite. He wants them on drugs.”
Hof says Summers is typical of the women who staff his brothels. She came to him of her own free will in December 2012, and is free to leave when ever she wants. Like his other women, she has a weekly medical test to make sure she’s healthy.
Drugs, he says, aren’t allowed because he’s running a legal business and drugs are illegal.
Bad, abusive johns are also out. Summers says she’s free to refuse doing business – at the Bunny Ranch they call it “partying” – with anyone she chooses, something Hof says he wholeheartedly supports.
Summers says she’s refused customers on a couple of occasions.
“If there’s something they want to do that I’m not comfortable doing, then I have to decline them,” she says.
“If there’s something I won’t do, there will be another girl that will do it. My boundaries are completely different than another girl’s boundaries.”
Hof says he’s sure he could open a viable business in Canada. He’s not concerned that people might have a different attitudes towards buying legalized sex north of the 49th parallel than they would in the relative anonymity of Nevada, with its proximity to Las Vegas.
“I look at Canadians as being conservative a but in private a lot of Canadian customers are in here,” says Hof.
“Take the morality out of it and think logically – we can stop the exploitation of women, we can stop criminals, we can stop money going into an underground society as opposed to back into society.”
Matte says she sees it differently. She’s hoping that morality does play a role in the final outcome of the legal challenge.
To her, the idea that a guy and his buddies can go out on a Friday night and buy a woman or girl for their sexual pleasure, and then discard her when they’re done, is reprehensible.
“Ultimately, it’s the idea that women are buyable, and some category of women should be kept buyable,” she says. “Prostitution is not sexual freedom for women. It’s a group of women being put at the service of men’s sexuality.”
Matte says the women she represents are tired of being portrayed as “being against sex.”
“We love sex,” she says. “But we love sex when we decide that we can say no, and we can say yes to whoever we want.”