A professor at the Dal Law School says she’s hoping governments in Canada will finally change laws and regulations to make sex work safer. Elaine Craig was commenting last night on a recent Ontario court decision which declared that federal criminal code provisions governing sex work violate the Charter of Rights.
“A government is not entitled to jeopardize health and safety simply to reduce public nuisance,” Craig told about 100 people at Mount Saint Vincent University during an event co-sponsored by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs. “Public nuisance doesn’t outweigh the brutalization and rape and murder of sex workers.”
In November, a Coast news feature reported that sex workers in Halifax routinely face violence and 17 have gone missing or been murdered since 1985. StatsCan homicide figures, cited in the Ontario court ruling, show that between 1996 and 2006, an average of seven prostitutes were killed each year in Canada.
Laws increase dangers of sex work
It has always been legal in Canada for adults to sell sex. It’s the activities surrounding the sex trade that have been criminalized including living off the avails of prostitution, keeping a common bawdy house and communicating in a public place for the purpose of engaging in prostitution.
Last September after almost a year of deliberation, Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel decided all three of those provisions violate Charter guarantees of the right to life, liberty and security of the person. She ruled the laws prohibit prostitutes from taking precautions such as working indoors in safer environments, hiring assistants or bodyguards to protect them, or screening clients more carefully on the street. She noted that “vulnerable” street prostitutes “face an alarming amount of violence.”
The federal government has until April 29th to appeal her decision. “We believe that the prostitution trade is bad for society,” Prime Minister Harper told reporters last month. “That's a strong view held by our government and I think by most Canadians.”
However, last night, Dr. Craig suggested if the Ontario decision is upheld on appeal, that would open the door for a change in what she called our “dysfunctional” sex laws.
“Those interested in preserving the rights of sex workers need to think about how the various levels of government should respond,” Craig said adding that the main issue will be “the degree and type of regulation” imposed. She noted, for example, that many municipalities already have zoning regulations for body rub parlours and escort services. In Toronto and Vancouver, municipal body rub licensing fees can run up to seven or eight thousand dollars a year. Craig said that in regulating sex work, it’s important to balance community interests with workers’ rights and their safety.
Expert calls laws discriminatory
Last night’s audience also heard from Melissa Ditmore, an American expert who served as editor of the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work.
“Violent criminals who want to victimize someone may seek out sex workers,” Ditmore said because they know that sex workers have a harder time reporting crime to police. She added that Canada’s laws make it difficult for sex workers to work more safely from their homes especially if they live with spouses or adult children who could be charged with living off the avails of prostitution.
Ditmore said sex work has been decriminalized in other countries, such as New Zealand and parts of Australia, without harmful social effects. But she warned against Sweden’s decision to target the male johns who buy sex and not the women who sell it.
“People who disapprove of sex work advocate the Swedish model,” she said. But she pointed out it’s never been a crime to sell sex in Canada: Simply criminalizing the act of buying it avoids working to change laws which discriminate against society's most vulnerable people, she said.