Culture | Shedding a red light on history

Sarah Mortimer recounts the birth and development of the home of Montreal’s sex industry

The history of Montreal’s red- light district betrays its special notoriety. It was bred, after all, by the same mechanisms that brought other commercial sex industries in North America into being. The lack of economic opportunity for working class women, widows, unwed mothers, and “spinsters” forced women to turn away from more “respectable” professions in order to make a living. Characterized as “fallen” by more politically influential classes, these women were then further marginalized – socially and legally – by society. Throughout the decades, Montreal’s sex industry fell under fluctuating intensities of regulation, but was never fully outlawed.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, municipal authorities dealt with what they saw as the problem of sex work in Montreal largely through symbolic spatial politics. Efforts were made to keep prostitution away from “innocent” middle class women and children by arresting sex workers who strayed outside the accepted limits of Montreal’s so-called “erotic marketplace.” As a result, brothels and nightclubs became visibly severed from Montreal’s upstanding residential areas, making it possible – as Chez Stella founder and Concordia sex historian Karen Herland points out – for members of the city’s middle class “to pretend that society’s virtue was intact.”

The character of Montreal’s red-light district thus developed in opposition to these exclusive enclaves of “virtue.” Greeted with disgust and suspicion in residential areas of the city, individuals who rejected society’s traditional domestic values may have been attracted to the red-light district for the relative freedom it offered from social and legal persecution.

Whereas female sex workers were rejected for their work and life circumstances in other areas of society, those who worked together in brothels and bars formed close bonds over their similarities, creating what Tamara Myers calls “a distinct female subgroup.” Additionally, during the twenties – when sex workers fell under the ever-expanding scope of strict loitering laws – brothels and bars became legally safe, though not ideal, spaces for sex workers. The same institutions that alarmed upper-class mothers and motivated them to form anti-vice committees throughout the first of half of the century, did, in fact, serve a practical purpose for many people who were already on the outskirts of society.

Of course, welcoming those who existed on society’s margins has always been a key part of the red- light district’s history. In her book, C’etait du spectacle, Vivian Namaste writes that the “spirit of diversity and tolerance” around sex and labour on lower St. Laurent, where controversial renovations are slated to occur this spring, contributed to the vibrant history of Montreal’s transsexual communities.

Likewise, it was not uncommon for non-heteronormative sexual practices to take place at clubs in the area. In his famous book City Unique, author William Weintraub recalls seeing two nude women penetrating each other with dildos at 312 Ontario during the forties. Though taken on its own, this by no means suggests the existence of a lesbian community in that brothel, it proves the existence of relatively open attitudes in such spaces toward sexual practices that might have been viewed as abnormal by mainstream society.

It was only sporadically that city leaders and police attempted to check the activities in this area. At the dawn of the 20th century, Montreal’s status as one of the fastest growing cities on the continent – in addition to its port access and European cultural ties – made it a central destination for travellers across the globe. Soldiers, booze-seeking Americans, and curious commuters throughout Canada all flooded the entertainment district’s main arteries in search of that “glittering sinfulness” that had become Montreal’s call to fame.

By 1944, it became evident that the red-light district was generating an important portion of Montreal’s commerce when Mayor Adhémar Raynault – alarmed by an explosion of STI infections among men from nearby military bases – took action, shutting dozens of brothels down. Soon after, Montreal tourism rates plummeted, forcing Renaud to admit the city’s economic dependence on the red-light district.

The incident proved emblematic of a legacy of moments in Montreal’s history where authorities have had to redefine their approach to regulating the red-light district, by taking into account social and economic realities. The economic boost that city-regulated prostitution afforded both the legal system and the tourist industry would ultimately undermine moralizing campaigns by politicians like Jean Drapeau. Today, arguments over the area’s historic importance are shaping the way in which authorities make decisions about the space.

Looking back at the history of the area, it is most interesting to note the force of attraction it continues to exert on its visitors, developed in spite of initiatives aimed at reducing its visibility. Perhaps it is this area’s openness that has caused Montreal to figure so favourably in the popular imagination.


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