The Supreme Court of Canada is set to decide whether to loosen or tighten prostitution laws
When it comes to lawmaking, complex social problems often take a back seat in our houses of government thanks to the unwillingness of our politicians to stick out their necks. Nowhere is this truism more evident than in the world’s oldest profession of prostitution.
Most people outside Canada and even some within would be surprised to learn that the buying and selling of sex is legal in the country. What’s illegal are the activities that surround them, such as procuring (pimping), brothels and communication for the purposes of prostitution (the first rule of prostituting is don’t talk about prostituting).
Prostitution can be a dangerous business in whatever country you find yourself in, but because of the way the laws exist in Canada, it can be more hazardous than others.
Last year, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the criminal code ban on bawdy houses on the grounds that the law puts sex workers in danger by forcing them to work outside. The court also relaxed the law for those who live off the benefits of prostitution such as bodyguards and accountants, as long as there is no exploitation.
To no surprise the Conservative controlled federal government took exception to the case and brought it in front of the Canadian Supreme Court claiming the Ontario Court of Appeal erred.
The Supremes heard arguments from both sides of the legalize/criminalize spectrum a couple weeks ago. With a decision expected in the fall, it’s safe to say that regardless of how the court rules, changes in Canada’s prostitution laws are coming.
Those who are advocating for tougher laws come from the usual suspects who believe they hold the moral high ground such as conservatives, church goers and certain anti-violence groups. To try and prove their points in front of the court they resorted to fear mongering and nit-picking data, but mainly stuck to the argument that it’s morally wrong.
On the other side of the argument we have the sex workers themselves. Terry-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott are the three sex workers responsible for bringing the constitutionality of criminal laws governing sex work before the Ontario court last year (Bedford vs. Canada).
Evidence has consistently shown that these criminal laws cause shame, force sex workers to work in isolated and hidden spaces, and prevent access to basic health and support services. In short, sex workers are forced to work independently and in isolation without protection, it couldn’t be more dangerous.
“Criminalization means that, as sex workers, we have no access to the legal system or police protection,” said Anna-Aude Caouette, a member of the Montreal group, Stella. “It also contributes to the stigma and discrimination we face, making it more difficult for us to find social support and to access health services in our communities.”
The three woman who brought the case before court is a direct result of inaction by consecutive federal Liberal and Conservative governments. Back in 2006, a parliamentary committee released a detailed report calling for the decriminalization and reform of prostitution laws, but it was ignored by the newly elected Conservatives. Now it falls on the Supreme Court to do what politicians have feared getting involved in.
In a secular country like Canada, our morals don’t guide our laws, the constitution does. I’m fairly certain that if the judges stick to the constitution like they have in the past, rather than caving to the moral ranting of others (or even their own), our sex workers will be able to work in peace and security, maybe even pay some taxes.
Section seven of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that we all have a right to life, liberty and security of the person. I can’t think of a reason why this wouldn’t apply to a prostitute whose profession is technically legal in the first place.
Quite frankly, I think if you want to take the moral high ground with prostitution, you have to ask yourself which is better; allowing a man or woman to exchange sex for money or endangering their wellbeing and very lives to keep the former illegal? The answer has always been clear to me.