Canadian prostitution laws under revision

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Prostitution laws are divisive in Canada.

Prostitution laws are divisive in Canada.

What route will our government take?

Article: Sarah Luyendyk – Contributor

The Supreme Court struck down Canada’s prostitution laws. They struck down the laws that prohibited keeping a bawdy-house, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating in public with respect to a proposed act of prostitution. These laws increased the risks to sex workers, as they could not implement safety measures such as hiring body guards and drivers, working in private homes and talking with clients in public. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin cited, “it is not a crime in Canada to sell sex for money…these restrictions on prostitution put the safety and lives of prostitutes at risk, and are therefore unconstitutional.” The laws against child prostitution and human trafficking will remain intact.

The court’s decision on prostitution overall is a contentious and complex issue. Sex workers, feminist groups, organizations, religious organizations and individuals hold some common views including decriminalising and reducing the risks to sex workers. However, there is polarization based on rights, views of sexuality, the domains of sex and the framework for harm reduction.

There are those are who argue that prostitution is exploitive, dehumanizing and violating. Kathleen Barry described prostitution as sexual exploitation because it abolishes a person’s human rights to dignity, equality, autonomy and physical/mental well being, as the human being is reduced to a body, objectified to sexually service another, whether or not there is consent. Bridget Perrier, 37, an Ojibway, and former child sex worker, cried when she heard the news, but not tears of joy, she stated, “it feels as a survivor, someone commercially and sexually exploited, that it’s a slap in the face. A big slap in the face. We can’t put dollars signs on our bodies.”

Also, Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and member of the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, views it as exploitive when she stated, “it’s a sad day that we’ve now had confirmed that it’s OK to buy and sell women and girls in this country, [however]…we absolutely object to the criminalization of women. Our position would not interfere with those women who truly made their choices.”

Many enter into prostitution as adolescents, whether pressured, forced by family or relatives or due to circumstances of abuse, poverty, etc. For instance, The Native Women’s Association of Canada stated “we want women to be free from the poverty and abuse that targets them for prostitution and stop being blamed for their prostitution.”

vancouversunDr. Alison Hayford, from the department of sociology, now retired, explained that it is more complex than just stating they chose this. She described it as a “fundamental philosophical problem in that women need to be recognized as rights-endowed beings who choose what to do with their own bodies. At the same time, you have the reality that the choices people make are often severely constrained by circumstances beyond their control, such as extreme poverty. We know this is true, that many people who go into sex work didn’t freely choose this. The issue is how do you protect the vulnerable? How do you protect people who do not have choices or whose choices are constricted, without denying the rights of individuals to make choices?”

For many, one solution is to implement the Swedish model – opposing legalization. Aboriginal Women’s Action Network On Prostitution stated, “the available evidence suggests…[legalization] would expand prostitution and promote trafficking, and would only serve to make prostitution safer and more profitable for the men who exploit and harm prostituted women and children.” The basis of the Swedish model is to promote gender equality and end violence against women, therefore, the person paying for sexual services is penalized instead of the sex worker.

On the other end, the court’s decision is seen as a victory as it established a person’s right to reduce harm when selling sex. Terri-Jean Bedford, one of the plaintiffs, former sex worker and a sex workers advocate, passionately stated, “it is a great day for Canada, great day for women across Canada…bad laws have fallen…now we can get down to writing new laws that help people, that are fair, safe and don’t put anyone in harms way.”

The court’s decision was based on the individual’s right to safety. McLachlin provided the example of Pickton. Pickton, a pig farmer in British Columbia, murdered 26 female sex workers. If these women were allowed the safety measures of talking to potential clients in public, hiring bodyguards and drivers and working in private homes, they may have been saved.

Some advocate for the legalization of prostitution. If legalized, sex workers would possess the same rights and legal protection as people in other occupations. As one sex worker described, “sex workers should not have to stand in queue behind their clients for human rights.” They want police assistance if their boss refuses to pay, or if they are harmed, or a client leaves without paying. Some argue that prostitution is a form of labour. As feminist Kamala Kempadoo says, “it is a form of income-generating labor, like other labours that involves using specific parts of the body, energy and skills.”

Also, they strive to remove negative connotations. They use the term sex worker instead of prostitute as the term prostitute serves to dehumanize them.

Dr. Darlene Juschka, Women and Gender Studies coordinator, stated, “I call them sex workers, I don’t call them prostitutes, [as calling them] prostitutes is a way of dismissing them as they no longer have human status.”

One of the reasons Pickton was not caught earlier was because of societal attitudes that stigmatizes and devalues sex workers. Law enforcement ignored public complaint of a serial killer preying on women because the victims were prostitutes and drug addicts. Sex workers are still hesitant or refrain from enlisting police assistance due to these attitudes. One sex worker explained, “they still expect to be treated disrespectfully, due to the stigma that still exists.”

Furthermore, sex workers want recognition as people who are capable, make choices and have the right to self-determination.

Concerning the creation of new laws, sex workers want to ensure their voices and needs are heeded. Dr. Juschka holds this stance, that sex workers need to be heard “not the social body who is looking and judging the kind of work she, he is doing and not parts of the social body: the legal system, religious system, moral system…I want to hear from the perspective of sex workers (females, males, transgendered), what their needs are and what we should be doing to help them.”

Many reject Sweden’s model, arguing it has increased risk, criminalizes sex workers and it criminalizes potential clients. Pye Jakobsson, a former sex trade worker in Sweden, explained Sweden’s law has made an already risky line of work more dangerous as it forced them deeper into the shadows. New Zealand legalized prostitution, claiming legalization “safeguards the human rights of sex workers and protects them from exploitation and promotes the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers.” For example, sex workers and clients are required to use appropriate protection …sex workers are protected from forced work, they can refuse work and withdraw their consent at any stage of the transaction”

The Supreme Court gave parliament one year to create new laws if they choose to do so. The Conservatives seem inclined to models such as Sweden’s as Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay reported that prostitution is too complex to be legalized outright and that they especially want to study the Nordic model. MacKay stated they want to “ensure the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities, those engaged in prostitution and vulnerable persons.”

Image:Emily Wright

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