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Researching Sex Trade History: Students' Perspectives


In the spring of 2016 twelve University of Toronto students in Professor Laurie K. Bertram's seminar "The Oldest Profession in Canada" began research some of the many Toronto sites associated with sex work between 1865 and 1915. From sites of moral reform to some of the city's many "bawdy houses" or "houses of ill fame" (brothels), each student has uncovered a previously forgotten space and conducted research on the people who lived there more than a century ago. The points on this map represent a small fraction of the histories of sex work in a booming city, but they are part of a larger project that strives to uncover the lives, voices and experiences of sex workers themselves. In making a moment or personality from the hidden history of the city available, students stated the following about the challenges that this history poses to our understandings of Toronto's past.

I think that by acknowledging that sex workers occupied physical space in the city you realize that they also have the right to occupy metaphorical space as citizens and as members of our community... For me this research was exciting because it seems like unmediated access- through this kind of detective work we were able to figure out where people lived and worked. It stood in contrast to a lot of the moral reformer source material in a really exciting ways.             


Little by little we strive to change the idea that people have about the sex trade. It was connected to development of the city and the economic realm.    

     Juan Carlos

It was interesting to see the other side of the fence- how linked the city was through prostitution and police.  


I was surprised to see how diverse sex work was. There were workers that worked together in brothels, independently, and with pimps or madams. There was no static model. This was a human profession. These were people. When you apply faces and names to the map you can't ignore that. You can't disconnect with the people themselves or you lose a valuable piece of the history.   


Obviously a lot is missing from the lives that we looked at, but it was great to see how much we can glean from the record. It was a chance to tell the story of people whose stories never get told. 


(I was interested to discover that) there were systems in place that also protected sex workers. Reformers and police could not act with impunity.


It was interesting to see how integral sex workers were to local neighbourhoods as well as the economy in Toronto... this project reveals sex workers as being individuals and complex people. 


I was personally surprised to see that in Toronto there were people like Mayor William Henry Boulton who owned brothels and that (future Prime Minister) Mackenzie King frequented brothels. A lot of men went to brothels for their first sexual experience, it was an acceptable thing even though people tried to brush it under the rug.


I was interested to see how sex work was seen as both immoral and a necessity. I remember when I found an abolitionist who was incarcerated for distributing lewd material. He himself was brought to court for distributing this kind material even though he was protesting.



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Researching Sex Trade History: Students' Perspectives