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Prostitution Laws in Canada

It was announced on Tuesday in an Ontario court that Canada’s prostitution laws were deemed unconstitutional. While prostitution is technically legal, the communication or soliciting of prostitution, earning a living off of a sex worker and the running of a brothel remained illegal. The implications of these prohibitions force many women to work in the streets, where drug addiction, violence, rape and murder are very real threats. The case, put forth by dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford and sex workers Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch argued that these laws failed to protect women. In fact, they essentially made violence against sex workers excusable, if not legal. Technically, a prostitute could be arrested for reporting a client who has assaulted her. The removal of these laws now allows sex workers to report violent customers, and more importantly, to work from the safety of their own homes.

So are we going to see the licensing of prostitution in Canada? Will Winnipeg have it’s own red light district? I doubt it. The Conservatives are going to appeal the decision, and I’m sure that some watered-down piece of legislation will be passed that will essentially do nothing to protect street-level sex workers. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Harper use this ruling as another ace in his sleeve to secure votes from conservative voters and Canadians who are morally opposed to the practice of prostitution.

Where does this moral opposition come from? Is it a remnant of our colonial history? After all, some of the first colonists to arrive in North America left Europe because of their strict religious convictions (I once heard them referred to as “the prudes of Europe”). Or maybe it’s the obsession with what other people are doing in their bedrooms and the perverse desire to control it. Or perhaps it’s the street-level results of our prostitution laws that invoke such knee-jerk, negative responses. If the laws criminalize and victimize prostitutes, sex workers are left with little choice but to work in the streets. This typically occurs in neighbourhoods in which poverty, drug use and crime are commonplace. Because women are so unprotected by the law (to report violence, rape or the disappearances of fellow workers – the Pickton case, anyone?) it is no wonder that so many Canadians have adopted such a vitriolic view of prostitution. The only time they hear about prostitution is, most likely, in the news when it relates to a story of crime or violence. The fact is that these women are unprotected citizens and victims of a set of laws that only perpetuate the crime and violence that is associated with prostitution.

So, it’ll be interesting to see what happens. The more the lives of sex trade workers are up for public and parliamentary discussion, perhaps there is a better chance the average Canadian will learn of the horrific conditions these women face.

For a much more comprehensive examination of prostitution laws in Canada, read Missing Women, Missing News by David Hugill.

As well, keep your eyes open for Kirsten Kramar and Richard Jochelson’s upcoming book, Governing Sexual Minorities, set to be released this spring.

Posted on September 30th, 2010

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