40 years ago this summer, shoeshine boy Emmauel Jaques was found dead on the roof of a massage parlour on Yonge Street. Examination of the child revealed that he had also been sexually assaulted. That news led to a public outcry and a considerable crackdown on the increasingly sleazy nature of many businesses on one of Toronto’s best known streets.
The Toronto Star wrote a detailed article about this grim anniversary and it left me thinking about my youth. I didn’t live in Toronto, but my family frequently visited the area in order to shop at the newly opened Eaton Centre and the World’s Biggest Bookstore.
I was 12 years old in 1977, the same age as Jaques, and while my brief time in the area would not have subjected me to the same sorts of dangers he faced, it was almost certainly less safe than I imagined. The Ontario Censor Board ensured that the sex films exhibited in the province were far less explicit than those shown in American cities like New York and Los Angeles, but prostitution was increasingly prevalent on the Yonge Street strip. While there were women working the streets, many were out of sight and in the large number of massage parlours that had opened in the area.
Sexual freedom is important and I support legalized prostitution, but studies have shown that many of the women in this profession are illegal immigrants and not doing this job willingly. Even when sex is a business transaction, it needs to be a safe and consensual one. Government oversight is probably the only way this would be possible.
Did the prurient nature of Yonge Street during that time contribute to the murder? It might have, and the actions of Toronto police certainly indicated their belief that it did. Nowadays, Yonge Street is far more corporate and safe, though probably still not an area where a wide-eyed 12 year-old should be walking around unaccompanied.