A rare (and major) success for Canadian sex workers

So I have made my stance on sex work pretty clear – I see nothing inherently immoral about having sex with someone for money, provided both parties are reasonably informed of the risks inherent in any kind of casual sex and are capable of giving consent. That’s more or less the liberal boiler plate for sex work. I take it a step further than some do when I say that I also don’t see anything inherently tragic about sex work. Yeah, the most easily-retrievable meme about sex work is that of the street-walking hooker, desperate and starving and turning tricks to feed her smack habit. Rescue sex work exists, and drug addiction can be a serious problem in all low socio-economic status groups – the intersection of those two cannot be ignored or dismissed. However, that’s not a problem with sex work per se – there are a number of other factors, both personal and societal, that create those situations. They certainly do not comprise the entirety of the trade.

While I have expressed my reservations before about losing the focus of this blog, tilting at every windmill I come across, something happened this week that sort of blew the doors off that plan. I say ‘sort of’ because it involves Canada’s courts, and this is a ‘good news week’ (to try and balance out last week’s and Monday’s heaviness), and because fuck it, I want to. A few months ago, a group of sex workers and advocates challenged Canada’s laws on operating ‘a bawdy house’ – the language gives you a hint as to how old the law is. The law states that while prostitution is perfectly legal, it is illegal to make one’s living as a prostitute or to operate an indoor business for the purposes of prostitution. Which leaves… the street.

Scary shit happens out on the streets. When you have less control over your surroundings (and who your customers are), you are at greater risk of violence and/or exploitation. If sex work is how you pay your bills, then you’re trapped between a rock and a hard place when it comes to turning away customers or deciding to avoid the streets. One might argue that forcing prostitutes to the streets puts them in unnecessary danger that they wouldn’t face if they could practice their trade indoors. One in fact did argue that. One won:

Ontario’s highest court has legalized brothels in a sweeping decision that condemned current prostitution laws for adding to the hazards of a highly dangerous profession. The Ontario Court of Appeal allowed the Crown just one victory, ruling that communicating for the purposes of prostitution will remain illegal. The landmark decision is binding on Ontario courts and sets up a final showdown at the Supreme Court of Canada next fall or in early 2013.

Ontario Attorney-General John Gerretsen said on Monday that he intends to discuss appealing the decision with his federal counterparts. “Our main concern is that people feel safe in their communities, feel safe in their homes, and this kind of issue may very well need legislative action,” he said.

Would you excuse me a moment please?

Ron Swanson does his happy dance

There. Got that out of my system.

There are two things to take note of in this decision. First, even though it will not have the force of law for a year, it allows sex workers to hire bodyguards as of next month. It also reforms the laws governing pimps, allowing for prosecution in the case of exploitation. This will, of course, require either undercover operations to expose exploitative pimps or (more likely) that exploited sex workers to come forward to police and report abuse. Being a pimp is no longer a crime, which makes it tougher to prosecute only those who cause harm.

Second, the still outlaws communication for the express purpose of prostitution, meaning that sex workers cannot negotiate or advertise in public (what is often referred to as ‘solicitation’). At first pass this seems reasonable, given that having people standing out on street corners cat-calling potential clients is decidedly unpleasant if you are just trying to walk through your neighbourhood at night. However, opponents of this provision argue that it will give street workers less opportunity to negotiate with potential clients before entering their cars (for example).

My interpretation is that the harm potentially caused by this law depends entirely on the attitude of police. If an officer sees a prostitute and a john clearly bargaining (rather than the prostitute trying to wave down passersby or something), ze has the discretion to ignore a contravention of the letter of the law in favour of the spirit of the law. This requires a level of trust and respect between sex workers and police that has been, to put it mildly, lacking. However, here in Vancouver at least, that relationship may be showing some signs of improvement:

Police officers working the beat in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside could soon have a new set of rules for dealing with sex workers, making prostitutes’ safety their priority and considering criminal charges only as a last resort. The proposed guidelines, which the city’s police board will consider on Wednesday, have prompted optimism among advocates in the Downtown Eastside. They hope the new rules improve the relationships between the force and prostitutes and offer a way to hold officers to account when they fall short. The document says the force must focus on treating sex workers with dignity and respect, treat all cases of violence against sex workers as serious criminal offences, and work with special units within the force and community groups in all cases involving prostitutes.

“Sex work involving consenting adults is not an enforcement priority for the [Vancouver Police Department],” Deputy Chief Lemcke writes. “The VPD does not seek to increase the inherent dangers faced by sex workers, especially survival sex workers. Therefore, where there are nuisance-related complaints against survival sex workers, alternative measures and assistance must be considered with enforcement a last resort.”

It is important to recognize that the Ontario court decision does not automatically set law for the rest of the country, but assuming it is not overturned by an appeal to the federal supreme court (which I think is unlikely), it sets a powerful precedent to have similar cases launched in the other provinces. If these items set the standard for the way that prostitution is handled across the country, it will have a profound effect on how we invest public law enforcement resources. I hope to see more of these kinds of mature and forward-thinking developments, for the protection and benefit of those Canadians who need it most.

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  1. curiouscaper says

    It’s nice to see some progressive changes that take into account reality and evidence.

    Especially since were are not going to see anything like this out the current Canadian government. At least not if the proposed crime bill is anything to go by.

  2. left0ver1under says

    My greatest annoyance with all laws on prostitution is that they aimed (mostly) at those selling sex and only partially aimed at the buyers.

    The majority of those who sell sex are women. The majority of those who buy sex are men. Anyone who says the laws aren’t sexist is living in a delusion or is lying.

    The sole target of law enforcement should be on the Johns. Those who sell sex don’t kidnap the Johns off the street and force them to have sex, then take money from their wallets.

    Prostitution only exists because the Johns are looking for it – if there were no buyers, there would be no sellers. But that would require admitting that most lawmakers are men and so are the Johns, two facts that people don’t want to admit are linked.


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