Canadian History Shows that Sex Workers Usually Get the Short End of the Stick

Windsor Star, Jan. 24, 1923.

Margaret Ross

Late one evening in January 1923, police descended on Millie Jones’s bawdy house at 757 Mercer Street in Windsor, Ontario. She was forty-eight years old, and ran the house with her husband, George.[1] The couple was Black, and they employed two other Black women. The entire group was arrested, including two clients who were being entertained at the time of the raid.[2] In court, Millie and George were charged over two hundred dollars each for keeping a bawdy house and smuggling moonshine, respectively. Unable to pay the fines, the pair was imprisoned for three months. While the Joneses were in jail, their home burned to the ground.[3] Although police attributed the fire to “spontaneous combustion in a pile of rubbish,” Millie probably suspected that their residence was deliberately targeted given that their names and address had been reported in the press. It’s hard to overstate the repercussions of these bawdy house charges, which led to loss of livelihood, loss of home, and irrevocably altered Millie Jones’s life.

Despite the undeniable harm caused by bawdy house laws, particularly for women of colour and other historically marginalized communities, Millie Jones would be ineligible to wipe her criminal record clean of these charges if she were alive today. The Supreme Court struck down the sex work provisions of bawdy house laws in 2013 for violating sex workers’ Charter rights, but the repercussions of prior convictions continue to haunt sex workers to this day.

The unfairness of this situation was made stark last month when the Canadian government announced that individuals with criminal records of abortion or indecent acts committed in a bawdy house will soon be able to expunge their convictions. This amendment expands the list of offences that can be wiped under the Expungement of Historically Unjust Convictions Act, which formed part of the 2017 government apology to LGBTQ2S+ Canadians.

The announcement, timely delivered in the days between International Sex Workers’ Rights Day and International Women’s Day, has been met with fierce criticism from sex work organizations and queer activist groups for limiting eligible bawdy house offences to indecency, rather than the full scope which included sex work. This decision deliberately excludes sex workers from the right to erase their bawdy house records. It also severely limits the conditions under which queer people can expunge their convictions of indecency, as many of their records also include accusations of prostitution.

My research on the history of Ontario sex work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries informs my perspective that this exclusion is merely one in a long line of historical injustices committed against sex workers by the Canadian government. A narrow understanding of history is at fault in the amendment. It overlooks that the policing of sex work and queer sex were deliberately linked together, and attempts to disaggregate queer identity from sex work, which, for many people, were and are identities that overlapped. By excluding sex workers, the state creates historical amnesia of the harm that bawdy house laws inflicted predominantly on women for over a century.

While the Joneses were in jail, their home burned to the ground. Windsor Star, Feb. 21, 1924.

In my research, I see first-hand how bawdy house legislation circumscribed sex worker’s freedom in an increasingly repressive era of policing. Early twentieth century Criminal Code amendments changed the offences of keeping or being inmates of bawdy houses from summary to indictable offences. This resulted in harsher sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences for individuals with prior convictions, including Millie and George Jones.[4]

The state deliberately tried to narrow the legal definitions of private spaces to entrap and criminalize individuals for selling sex. In 1920, the Ontario Supreme Court ruled that even the backseat of a taxicab could be considered a bawdy house for the purposes of prosecution.[5]

Canadian sex work law targeted non-citizens by rendering individuals liable for deportation if they sold sex within three years of landing.[6] Edna Harris, a 24-year-old Black woman from Detroit, was caught working in Millie Jones’s brothel in 1923. She was single, and also worked as a cook in Windsor. Harris was charged with being an inmate of a bawdy house then deported back to the US. Although many Windsor sex workers were foreign born at the time and most did not face deportation, it’s likely that as a Black woman, Harris’s race was a factor in determining her sentencing, as was her recent immigration status. Sex work was a survival strategy used by women and other marginalized communities in eras when their legal labour was undervalued, which the state exploited to bar purportedly undesirable citizens from entering or residing in Canada.

Canada has a long history of policing both sex workers and queer people using bawdy house law. In 1917, a Criminal Code amendment expanded the definition of a bawdy house to include places kept “for the practice of indecency.”[7] Historians have shown that police exploited this definitional vagueness in the latter half of the twentieth century to crack down on gay bathhouses.[8]

The policing of sex work and the policing of queer sex, then, went hand in hand. Many gay men were accused of prostitution in bathhouse raids, sometimes erroneously, and as such their records are ineligible for expungement. It would be impossible to determine whether they were targeted for queer sex or sex work, since they were probably targeted for both, yet the Expungement Act would demand that their records only mention indecency. Piecing apart sex workers and queer people through historical convictions is an impossible and fruitless task, given the overlaps between both groups. Furthermore, it attempts to undermine a long legacy of shared activism that continues to this day.

That the state linked queer sex and sex work through bawdy house laws was not accidental nor was it an isolated instance, as activists have noted. Canada’s vagrancy laws also historically targeted both sex workers and queer people. The legislation criminalized a range of purported public order offences including homelessness, drunkenness, sex work and solicitation, queer expression, and trans or perceived gender non-conforming behaviour.[9] Vagrancy charges demonstrate, once again, that queer expression and sex work were often overlapping rather than discrete experiences, both in terms of policing and individual identity.

Contemporary legislation reproduces the harms of repealed laws. In 2014, the Harper government passed Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA).[10] Despite its purported intention to protect individuals who sell sex while criminalizing the purchase of sex and third party involvement, sex work activists argue that this legislation continues to put their safety at risk, particularly those who are migrants, people of colour, or identify as LGBTQ2S+. Just as the bawdy house law criminalized selling sex indoors with safety in numbers, so too does PCEPA. The provision against living on the avails of prostitution forbids collective labour and mutual support among sex workers.

These historic wrongs are mirrored by the federal Liberal government today, as it continues to infantilize sex workers and deny their experiences when making policy decisions. More recent disappointments include Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election campaign promise to rectify Conservative reforms, including prostitution law, a vow that remains unfulfilled. Members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights held a parliamentary review of PCEPA in 2022, but their subsequent report was criticized for its emphasis on expanding Criminal Code provisions and policing, which sex workers argue will put them at further risk.

Sex workers do not take these slights lightly. The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform launched a constitutional challenge of PCEPA and presented arguments in the Ontario Superior Court last year. In advocating for decriminalization, sex workers repeated, as they have many times before, that the current laws make their work unsafe and force them into isolation. Until the government listens to sex workers, the historic harms of bawdy house laws will continue to be reproduced in legislation today.

Margaret Ross is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Queen’s University. Her research examines the history of sex work in Ontario from the 1870s to the 1930s.


[1] Windsor Public Library Municipal Archives, Windsor, Windsor Police Services records (RG8), Criminal Records Branch—Prisoner’s Registers (DII-1), unit 2, Jan. 24, 1924.

[2] “Police Arrest Six in Mercer St. Raid,” Border Cities Star, Jan. 24, 1924, 11.

[3] “Couple in Jail, Home Prey to Flames,” Border Cities Star, Feb. 21, 1924, 3.

[4] An Act to amend the Criminal Code, 3 & 4 George V. (1913), c. 13, s. 9, 12 (Canada); An Act to amend the Criminal Code, 5 George V. (1915), c. 12, s. 7, 8 (Canada).

[5] R v. Thompson, [1920] O. J.

[6] An Act respecting Immigration, 9-10 Edward VII (1910), c. 27, s. 3, 33, 40 (Canada).

[7] The Criminal Code Amendment Act (1917), 7 & 8 Geo. V, s. 3.

[8] Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile, The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010); Tom Hooper, “Queering ’69: The Recriminalization of Homosexuality in Canada,” The Canadian Historical Review 100.2 (June 2019): 257-273.

[9] Criminal Code, S.C. 1953-1954, 2 Eliz. 2, c. 51, s. 164 (Canada).

[10] Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, SC 2014, 62-63 Elizabeth 2, c. 25 (Canada).

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2 thoughts on “Canadian History Shows that Sex Workers Usually Get the Short End of the Stick

  1. Walter Cassidy

    Excellent article. I wonder if you came across and gay men who were charged in Windsor during this time before the 1964 raid?

  2. Maggie

    Hi Walter, thanks for the question! I found one case of a man charged with “buggery” in 1922, which I presume from the records was consensual male on male sex. I found a case of a man charged with “indecent assault on a male” in 1929, which was interpreted as non-consensual. I only researched up to 1930, so it’s likely that there are other cases I didn’t get into. Since neither case appeared to involve sex work, I didn’t dive too deeply into them, but they certainly reveal Windsor’s history of policing sexual expression in various forms.

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