Prostitution has never been illegal in Canada. However, there were certain things associated with being a certain type of prostitute that were.
In the end, being a prostitute was legal, unless you were poor and unable to work in the comfort and security of a safe home or room. Being a prostitute was legal, but protecting a prostitute, or being her driver, was not. Being a prostitute was legal, as long as we didn’t see it.
Canada has now said that these restrictions are overbroad and do not contribute to the health, safety and wellness of sex workers, and because of this, I cheer.
And then the inevitable “but what about when human trafficking happens!”
Now, firstly, almost every sex worker organization I’m familiar with says the way to fight trafficking is to make sex work legal, and remove barriers that prevent sex workers from going to the police.
But I want you to consider this:
More recently, increased evidence of human trafficking for forced labour has come to light. Investigations of such cases have occurred across the country with charges being laid in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia. Cases encountered to date suggest that human trafficking for forced labour is more prevalent in Alberta and Ontario. Labour-related intelligence and investigations have involved foreign nationals, both male and female, from the Philippines, India, Poland, China, Ethiopia, Mexico, Thailand and Hungary. In addition, there are indications that some foreign nationals are illegally transported and subsequently exploited by the employers as domestic servants.*
I think it’s important to note that we don’t attack the careers (fishing, farming, etc.), we attack the abuse of one person by another. We attack human trafficking, and forced labour, not the career choice of willing domestic servants or farmers.
I think it should be the same with sex work. The only issue with sex work as compared to farming or fishing is the social stigma surrounding sex, particularly women we feel hold all the ‘power’ since they sell their sexual services to, often times, men who are unaccustomed to not being in power. Therefore, sex work threatens men’s power, and it threatens their wives or girlfriend’s power as well. Because of this personal insecurity and anger, we’ve penalized sex workers instead of focusing on what we can do to make relationships better, what we can do to make women equal parties in sexual relationships, how we can tackle different needs and wants and desires when it comes to sex.
We act like making sex work illegal is because of some noble belief that we’ll make society better, but if we dig down to the root of it, it’s far more likely that sex work plays with our own fears and insecurities.
The risk of disease, illness, abuse, or death is not exclusive to sex work. Other types of work that are frequently done using exploited workers – fishing and mining, for example – are also incredibly dangerous and with a high risk of illness, injury or death.
People being trafficked and coerced into sex work is its own problem that has less to do with the profession, and more to do with the profitability of that profession if that makes sense. That is to say that the people exploiting sex workers would eagerly exploit them into another career if it was more profitable than sex work (i.e. if cleaning services had the potential of making $1,000 a day, they would traffic women into that career instead of sex work).
As for the ‘drug’ issues, do you know what other careers have rampant drug use? Business professionals. Musicians. Bartenders. Construction workers. Actors. Wait staff. Business owners.
So why don’t we attack those jobs? Is it because those jobs, maybe, don’t have the potential to threaten our home and family? Is it that it doesn’t threaten our personal power? Is it that maybe it doesn’t feel so morally righteous to be calling out these people?
The only difference is the type of services they provide to the person paying them.
In the end, sex workers and sexual assault agencies are the ones fighting for this to be made legal, and I trust their opinion more than my own on this. They’re the ones working in this environment every day.
The purpose of the living of avails of prostitution law “is to target pimps and the parasitic, exploitative conduct in which they engage,” the court said. “The law, however, punishes everyone who lives on the avails of prostitution without distinguishing between those who exploit prostitutes and those who could increase the safety and security of prostitutes, for example, legitimate drivers, managers, or bodyguards. The living on the avails provision is consequently overbroad.”**
Finally—a point developed in argument before us—the bawdy-house prohibition prevents resort to safe houses, to which prostitutes working on the street can take clients. In Vancouver, for example, “Grandma’s House” was established to support street workers in the Downtown Eastside, at about the same time as fears were growing that a serial killer was prowling the streets—fears which materialized in the notorious Robert Pickton. Street prostitutes—who the application judge found are largely the most vulnerable class of prostitutes, and who face an alarming amount of violence (para. 361)—were able to bring clients to Grandma’s House. However, charges were laid under s. 210, and although the charges were eventually stayed—four years after they were laid—Grandma’s House was shut down (supplementary affidavit of Dr. John Lowman, May 6, 2009, J.A.R., vol. 20, at p. 5744). For some prostitutes, particularly those who are destitute, safe houses such as Grandma’s House may be critical. For these people, the ability to work in brothels or hire security, even if those activities were lawful, may be illusory.***
It breaks my heart that there was a serial killer in our country, preying on street prostitutes, and that the police wouldn’t take them seriously. They actually had Pickton in custody, and a woman who said he tried to kill her, but they released him because no one would believe her because she was a sex worker who was addicted to heroin. Even though he had DNA on his clothes (which they confiscated when she was in the hospital and he was in their custody) that linked him to multiple missing persons cases (and they didn’t test until years later.)
He killed about 50 women, most of them prostitutes.
Then to know that the sex workers tried to do something to be proactive about their safety, and have the police lay charges and have that safe space shut down?
That’s not helping make these people, some of the most vulnerable in our society, any bit safer. That’s looking down upon, and punishing, women who need help and support. Women who have families, who are going through hard times but are doing what they can to survive, just like the rest of us.
And banning it or making it partially illegal? That’s been tried, and does not work****.
In 1998, the Swedish parliament passed “The Protection of Women”: a law reform penalizing the demand for commercial sex, while decriminalizing the sex worker. Its goals are to curb the demand for commercial sex, and to promote gender equality.
The model was first adopted by Sweden in 1999, and later adopted by Norway and Iceland. It criminalizes situations where money, drugs, gifts, or other forms of compensation are exchanged for sexual services.
In 2004, the Swedish police and the Ministry of Justice released a report on the state of prostitution since the 1998 reform, and found that:
- There were fewer sex clients, but a larger proportion were dangerous
- Sex workers had less time to assess clients
- The prices for sexual services had fallen
- More clients were ready to pay for unprotected sex
- Sex workers felt that their risk of violence had increased
They are not ‘protecting’ women. They are taking away a viable source of income for women, they are making sure only the most desperate work as a sex worker, and they’re doing this by making it insanely dangerous under the guise of ‘protection of women’. The only women being protected by this law are women with other options.
I hope that when they write the new law they will be mindful of the spirit of the law and what we hope to actually achieve – less crime against sex workers, and more protection for them.