Red-light greenlight: Sex work at the brink of legalization | The Coast Halifax

Red-light greenlight: Sex work at the brink of legalization

The Harper government resists any change in legislation and is fighting a court ruling favouring sex workers, but a recent poll finds Canadians increasingly are in favour of legalization.

Red-light greenlight: Sex work at the brink of legalization
Meghan Tansey Whitton
The red umbrella has become the international icon for sex worker’s rights around the world. It symbolizes protection from the abuse and intolerance faced by sex workers everywhere but it is also a symbol of their strength. —

Editor's note, August 23: an earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Amy Lebovitch.

It’s September 2010 and Rene Ross is sipping coffee from a cracked mug while she drags me through a tour of sex-work policy in Halifax, all from our booth in the Good Food Emporium on Gottingen Street. Boundaries are areas in the city where sex workers who have been arrested are not allowed to return to---we’re sitting in one, she points out. Police officers, she sniffs, regularly pose as johns to trap girls on the street. She gets anonymous, violent threats on the regular, for no other reason than leading sex work support group Stepping Stone. I’m squinting at her and trying to wrap my head around it all.

Things are changing. According to a Forum Research poll, provdided exclusively to The Coast, 50 percent of Canadians now support making sex work legal, compared to just 36 percent who want to keep the status quo.

But as consensus slowly shifts, the scene on the ground has been in tumult. Ross is no longer the sex work matriarch of Halifax---she stepped down from her position when the group’s funding dissipated this year. Her professional nemesis, erstwhile police chief Frank Beazley, has been replaced with the laissez-faire Quebecois stylings of Jean-Michel Blais. Boundaries are no longer enforced. The criminal code has been facing the sharp legal axe of dominatrix-cum-shit-disturber Terri-Jean Bedford. The prudish public---anti-sex work feminists and family-valuing conservatives alike---are giving way to a slowly building consensus that creating legal conditions around sex work is the only way forward. But it’s not there yet. Pearl-clutching over the hooker at the end of the block is still the main driver for police action on sex work.

Canadian NIMBYism proves regional. Respondents in the Prairies tended to be the least supportive, with a bit more than a third in favour of the idea. More than half of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia wanted to make sex work legal for both the workers and their clients. Atlantic Canada was split, with equally 43 percent supporting and opposing it.

“Are you a cop?”

 The entire sex work regime in Canada is an anomaly. Virtually the only legal part is, paradoxically, paying for sex. Leaning over a car window and negotiating a price? That’s “communicating for the purposes of prostitution,” which is a summary offence. Working out of your apartment is “operating a common bawdy house” that will net you up to five years in jail. Using the profits of prostitution can be tried as “living off the avails,” punishable by up to 10 years. Those three provisions, advocates say, push sex workers onto the streets, and into the shadows.

So the sex workers took it to the courts, arguing that the laws put them in danger, and were therefore unconstitutional. The governing Conservatives, jumping at the chance to save the laws, made the case that sex workers chose the life of sex work, and all the risks associated. And the government can’t just let them get away with it.

As one of Ottawa’s expert witnesses, Melissa Farley, put it: “Prostitution is to the community what incest is to the family,” continuing, “just as pedophiles justify sexual assault of who use prostitutes develop elaborate cognitive schemes to justify purchase and use of women.”

The government lost the case. The judge axed all the sex work laws. Anarchy was set to descend on the country. Luckily, the government moved in to stay the impending depravity. After some wrangling, the case is now before the Supreme Court.

As the Supreme Court justices look to push the plunger and blow the laws sky-high, vice squads nationwide have been scrambling for cover. The Vancouver Police Department, which deals with some of the most high-traffic strolls in the country, has opted to jettison the contested laws that criminalize sex workers. In February, the department released a policy sheet that outlines its new “graduated response” approach, one where “alternative measures and assistance must be considered with enforcement a last resort.”

Some have called it a “no arrest policy.” While a spokesperson was quick to reject that title, he did note that the force is looking to stop enforcing the laws against soliciting and living off the earnings of prostitution.

That policy is one that Halifax will be studying when it drafts its own sex work guidelines, says sargent Andrew Matthews, the detective in charge of the HRM-RCMP Integrated Vice Unit. In the meantime, that train of thought has already begun filtering into the Vice Unit’s work.

It’s a real shift in approach. In the late ’90s, Stepping Stone intervened in an appeal against a prostitution charge, where a sex worker recounted her interaction with one of those undercover officers.

“Are you a cop?” asked the sex worker.
“No,” answered her john.
“Can you prove it?”
And he did. He put his hand in her pants and touched her crotch. They haggled for price---$20 for a blowjob, $40 for sex. They turned onto Agricola Street and a cop car pulled behind them.
“Are you a cop? Because the guy behind us is.”
He wrestled her into handcuffs. He was one of Matthews’ predecessors as head of the Vice Squad.

“Traditional vice work has moved away from going undercover and pulling up as a decoy to street-level sex workers,” says Matthews. That, in part, is because of the changing landscape of sex work in Halifax. Matthews says street-level work is dwindling, now that workers can advertise online and avoid the dangers of getting into a car with a stranger.

The changing realities have led to a new approach. The new leadership, under chief Blais, has also had an impact. “He’s quite progressive,” notes Matthews.

The boundaries that Rene Ross had explained to me are now on their way out. Matthews says the province has moved away from pushing those release conditions---stipulations that Matthews notes, echoing many sex work groups, may bar them from accessing vital resources or even returning home.

Ross and I were outside Gus’ Pub just before Blais stepped into the job in the fall of 2012, while she was still head of Stepping Stone. She had just sat down with him for the first time and was beaming. “Justin, he seems like he actually gets it.”

But Matthews underlines that while the force is keeping in mind the ongoing appeal, “we use the criminal code as our guiding principle.”

“A few neon lights”

 Alan Young is the lawyer that lit the spark that would eventually detonate those provisions of the criminal code.

“Everyone saw my case as amusing,” he tells The Coast from his office at the Osgoode Law School in Toronto. He has spent years “challenging, one-by-one” laws that tread over issues of consent in Canada---things like the differential age of consent for anal sex.

He conscripted three veterans of the sex industry: Terri-Jean Bedford, former prostitute and infamous dominatrix; Amy Lebovitch, sex worker and activist and Valerie Scott, a sex worker who has worked in every sex work venue imaginable.

“Dean” is a supporter of Bedford, who has worked alongside her as a strategist. He called me, never giving me his real name or number, on behalf of Bedford (she tested positive for Hepatitis C in 2002, and is often too ill to do interviews).

Dean says while he and Bedford have fought to break down the laws, there’s no telling what could come next.

“One must not presume that there is going to be a rational, open, fair debate,” he tells me.

In the course of my dozen-or-so interviews, I’ve heard theories about what could come of the Supreme Court case: that Harper will leave it up to the provinces to decide, that he’ll set up the so-called “Swedish model,” which seeks to criminalize paying for sex work, or that he’ll discover a new way to criminalize sex work through a backdoor.

Backdoors be damned.

“Everyone’s talking out of their ass,” says Young. “The only thing that’s going to happen is that they’ll be paralyzed by fear.”

Young says that the Conservative government will be be madly off in all directions---
pulled both by the abolitionists, the social conservatives, the liberals and those advocating decriminalization.

The final decision isn’t expected anytime in the next year, so the decision might not be Harper’s to make.

Is Harper stalling? I ask.

“Oh yeah. Yeah,” says Young.

Whether it’s Harper or someone else in power when the ruling comes down, there will be tough choices to make. Like a new car or a washing machine, Young says “there are different models to choose from.”

The Swedish model, a favourite of the anti-sex work feminists, criminalizes the purchasing of sex, making the johns the target. The Netherlands adopted a de facto decriminalization model that turns a blind eye to the brothels in the red light districts. Australia let its provinces decide, with some banning it outright and others permitting and regulating brothels. But one model inspires the most love from sex work advocates---New Zealand.

Catherine Healy is the national coordinator for the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. She’s a former sex worker herself (“I’m far too ancient to be one now,” she laughs) and has seen her country go from a situation very similar to Canada’s towards a full legalization model in just a decade. The Coast reached her by Skype.

“The legislation, at its heart, states that sex workers are protected---that their human rights are acknowledged,” says Healy. “It’s been a 360 degree turn.

“The police would entrap,” she continues. “They would pose as clients. In your discussions, you would always be anxious. It meant you couldn’t pull back the layers.” Now, she says, “our relationship with police is really important.” Sometimes she tells war stories to the current generation of police officers. They’re incredulous at the tales---like one story she tells me where police officers informed a sex worker, who was in the station reporting that she had been raped, that she could face prostitution charges. The greenhorn police officers ogle at the stories, she says.

Under the current regime, sex workers can operate on the street---which some still do, mostly out of necessity---while many operate in commercial brothels, and nearly half work in their own apartments, in small-scale operations, or with friends.

“You wouldn’t have a sense of the sex industry if you drove through New Zealand,” says Healy. “Aside from a few neon lights.”

There have been some suggestions that sex work establishments should be properly zoned. Aside from that, is anyone advocating that the industry be scaled back or re-criminalized?

“No, not at all. Not at all,” she says, shaking her head.

She offers one compelling statistic---nearly two-thirds of sex workers interviewed by the Ministry of Justice say they’ve been more able to turn away a john since the laws were introduced.

But women in Canada often don’t have that luxury. In the void, groups like Montreal’s Stella have stepped up.

The group does street-level outreach, warns workers of bad johns and operates medical and legal clinics. Robyn Maynard does street outreach for the group in the city’s downtown, especially in Montreal’s many massage parlours. From her point of view the “daily reality for people who are working on the street [is] a general fear of being arrested.”

The laws criminalizing both street-level and indoor sex work lead to those in the industry “putting themselves in dangerous situations to avoid getting arrested,” she says.

Maynard gives one example from her work in erotic massage parlours: “when the police often go in, they’re looking for condoms because they’re using them to hold over people’s heads and say ‘this is evidence of what’s going on here,’ so people are more and more reluctant to take condoms, even though they’re crucial for HIV and STI prevention,” she says. “The police are actually going through the garbage cans. I’ve heard more than one report of this, looking for condom wrappers as evidence.”

“The link between the laws and the women’s ability to fight the violence against them is what the crucial messaging is here,” says Maynard.

Stella’s spacious, if cluttered, office in the Centre-Sud neighbourhood of Montreal gives the impression of a group that has been doing the nitty gritty work for a longer than they ever imagined, but still have some gas left in the tank. Groups like Stella worked in the shadows for many years, as there appeared to be no national appetite to talk about the issues around sex work. But Maynard says things are shifting.

“I think what these legal cases have brought to the forefront are a lot of the issues surrounding the fact that the sex trade exists and that the women in the sex trade should have the right to be free from violence in their workplace,” she says. “It’s given voice to this idea.”

But things aren’t looking up for sex workers in Montreal. The city has moved to push workers out of what used to be the red light district, but what is now the rapidly gentrifying entertainment district. While Halifax and Vancouver look to take a collaborate approach towards sex work, Montreal has stepped up enforcement. Oh, and they still have boundaries---“quadrilaterals.” Mayndard tells me that sometimes those no-go zones for sex workers can be as large as the island of Montreal.

While Stella keeps trucking, Stepping Stone, at least in financial terms, appears to be running on empty. In 2009, a year into Ross’ tenure as executive director, the group pulled in almost $220,000 from all three levels of government. Last year, it reported only $78,000 to the Canada Revenue Agency, all from the provincial government. With Ross’ departure last year due to lack of funds, it appears as though that number may have slumped even further. Some street-level workers complained to the CBC this year that Stepping Stone no longer offers the level of services that it used to.

“I don’t use the word ‘prostitution’”

 As theatre of the absurd plays out on the streets and in the courts, national political will to fix the regime can be described as somewhere between complete indifference and moribund defeatism. Any tepid enthusiasm that new, liberal-leaning justice minister Peter MacKay may change the government’s approach is profoundly misplaced.

“In our government’s view, prostitution is harmful to vulnerable persons, especially women. Our government believes that current Criminal Code provisions are constitutionally sound as they denounce and deter the most harmful aspects of prostitution,” says a spokesperson for MacKay.

One issue that the Conservatives are willing to tackle, however, is human trafficking. Winnipeg MP Joy Smith has led the charge from the government benches to crack down on the issue, which she calls “modern-day slavery.” She’s gotten two bills passed on the issue.

“Human trafficking is where a predator targets a prey,” she says, explaining that she got into advocacy years ago while her son was a cop, working to fight child exploitation online.

She recounts one story of how a man lured a girl into a relationship. When her guard was down, he effectively kidnapped and sold her into the trade for more than $250,000. From there, she was passed from man to man, until she eventually escaped and told her story.

“The heartbreak and the terrible trauma these girls go through is unbelievable,” she says over the phone.

It’s hard to imagine, but advocates like Smith are the chief campaigners against people like Ross and Maynard.

When I ask Smith about the sex work, her voice becomes steely. “I don’t use the word ‘prostitution,’ I use ‘human trafficking,’” she says. “I’m very proud of the laws that are in place. They help to protect women. I’m not of the opinion that we should legalize anything. The laws we have right now---we need a lot more of them.”

Smith is emblematic of the holdouts against decriminalization. She’s a part of one of the largest anti-sex work movements in Canada---women. The Forum poll shows that while 60 percent of men support making sex work legal, with less than a third opposing it, women are much more divided. Only 41 percent of women support any form of legalization, with 44 percent against.

The abolitionist movement’s opposition to sex work is grounded in feminist roots, focusing on the idea that prostitution is exploitative. Worldwide, they’ve proven more effective at criminalizing sex work than even religious or social conservative groups.

One of the more radical examples come from an Icelandic group calling itself Big Sister, which set up a vigilante sting operation in 2012. Big Sister attracted and monitored men who tried to purchase sex through newspaper ads or through one of Reykjavik’s illegal massage parlours, then provided that list to police, and vowed to continue the work. Iceland, like the rest of the otherwise-socially liberal Nordic, criminalizes sex work through the Swedish model.

“The debate really has sharpened,” says NDP health critic Libby Davies. Her riding, Vancouver East, encapsulates the infamous Downtown Eastside, known as one of the highest-traffic areas in the country for sex work and drug use. “I think it’s a calculated and deliberate strategy. They always talk about human trafficking and sex work in the same breath. It makes it difficult to have a thoughtful, rational debate because you’re always having to sort that out.”

Everyone advocating for laxer sex work laws that I spoke to says essentially the same thing: Human trafficking, when it happens, is an evil that needs to be combatted. They note, however, that there is considerable legislation against the act, that police forces dedicate substantial resources to stopping the practise and there are very few arrests for the crime. The RCMP estimates there may be a few thousand victims who pass through Canada every year, but admit that it is notoriously hard to measure.

The NDP has long advocated for decriminalizing sex work, but has never had a codified policy to that effect. The party came close, at its convention in April, when Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, flanked by sex workers, supported carving out dedicated policy plank. But, at Davies’ urging, the motion never came to a vote and was referred to the party’s federal council instead.

Davies tells The Coast that it was taken off the floor of the convention because there was some problems with the way the motion was worded. She remains confident that the plank will become part of the party’s platform by October.

It’s no secret that sex work is a politically toxic issue. It’s easier, in the end, to leave the issue well enough alone and pretend like the current system is working, even though most admit it’s not.

Davies sat on a special committee tasked with examining Canada’s solicitation laws: “We all agreed that the status quo is unacceptable.” Yet that was just about the only thing that the committee could reach consensus on.

Everybody, using Young’s phrase, is paralyzed by fear. Everybody except the sex workers, who will be hitting the stroll tonight. a

Justin Ling is a freelance journalist and recovering Haligonian, based in Ottawa, via Montreal. He tweets at @Justin_Ling.