©2014 VICE Media LLC

    The VICE Channels

      A Prostitute Tells Us Why Ontario's New Prostitution Laws Still Blow A Prostitute Tells Us Why Ontario's New Prostitution Laws Still Blow A Prostitute Tells Us Why Ontario's New Prostitution Laws Still Blow

      A Prostitute Tells Us Why Ontario's New Prostitution Laws Still Blow

      April 6, 2012

      By Lauren Wilkins

      Last week in downtown Toronto, two prostitutes and a dominatrix faced off with the Ontario Court of Appeals in an ongoing legal fight for the rights of professional sex workers. Although prostitution in Canada is technically legal, there are provisions against almost every aspect of the act itself. As a prostitute, you can’t hire anyone to work for you (be it a manicurist or a security guard), own or operate a brothel, or solicit customers by talking to them, but you sure as shit can bang them and take money for it. The Ontario Court of Appeals struck down two provisions: the “bawdy house" law—which states that “owning, occupying, or being found in” a den of iniquity is illegal—and the “living on the avails of prostitution" law. So, basically, the court decided that it is no longer a crime to make money helping a lady of the night run her game, or to party in a brothel.

      But there’s a provision that the courts haven’t touched which leaves an already vulnerable sector of prostitutes even more at risk. “Communicating,” the act of a prostitute talking to a potential john and determining whether or not he could be dangerous, is still illegal. I spoke with Amy Lebovitch, one of three plaintiffs in this landmark case, about why there is still a very large number of sex workers at risk under the Canadian charter as it currently stands.

      VICE: Could you tell me about the Sex Professionals of Canada?
      Amy Lebovitch: We’re a completely volunteer-run social and political group, and we talk to the media, universities, and community groups about the need for the decriminalization of sex work. We also publish a “Bad and Undesirable Client List” on our website for sex workers who have experienced violence and want other people to be aware of it. Generally, our mission is to advocate equality within sex workers. We believe that all sex workers have the right to work safely and with dignity.

      What is your role in the recent court case? How did you get started and what has it been like to be involved?
      I was one of the plaintiffs. I’m a current sex worker, and Valerie, Terry, and Alan asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. For myself, seeing how the laws impact me on a daily basis, as well as my colleagues and friends, I felt it was important to be a part of this.

      Have you personally had any legal issues in the past?
      Every day I feel some kind of effect, either from stigmas people have or from the law. It’s sort of ever-present. There was a short time—about a year and a half—that I was seeing clients on the street. Luckily, I was able to move indoors. I recognize that working inside is a privilege that a lot of workers don’t have. When I was working out there, I really felt forgotten, endangered—it was very clear that my safety was reduced; I had to think about the cops instead of trying to work, trying to survive.

      Have you found that some places in Canada are more receptive, or friendly, to sex workers than others?
      Sex work is not viewed positively in Canada no matter where you go. The bulk of my work has been indoors, which means that I don’t have to draw attention to my location. When I discovered the [activist] community, people fighting for rights and safety who weren’t ashamed of what they did, I found that very comforting. The community we create is very important.

      In layman’s terms, can you explain what these changes in the law mean for sex workers in Ontario?
      For the bawdy house, meaning working indoors: if in a year that law is removed, I would still be able to work out of my home, which I do now anyway, but I’d be able to do it above board. I’d be able to freely report any crimes which may happen. And that’s not the norm—violence is not part of our job or something that should be expected, but when it happens, working in an environment that’s illegal can and does keep people from reporting crimes. Then there’s the living off the avails law, which wasn’t completely struck down. We were striking down that law to begin with because it was too broad: living wholly or in part off the earnings of someone who’s a prostitute. So, that encompasses anyone who assists us in our business.

      So, even like accountants and lawyers and hairdressers?
      Exactly. It didn’t say anything about circumstances of exploitation or that the person has to be causing distress. So, drivers and receptionists and positive people, not criminals, could possibly be entrapped in that law, because accepting payment would be “living wholly or in part.” The judges agreed that it was unconstitutional and a very broad law—too broad. We’re OK with that, but we see a problem in not removing it completely, because there are already laws that exist to prosecute people who are extorting or kidnapping, being violent. So, this feels like a sex worker-specific law designed to separate and malign us. Of course our jobs are different; all jobs are different from other jobs. The last one is communicating. I wish I had the words to express how upsetting—what kind of message is being sent by keeping the communicating law in place. Not only this separation between sex work—street and indoor—but the issue that the sex workers presently working outdoors can’t just chose to move indoors.

      Why would that be? What’s preventing them?
      Poverty, lack of housing, drug abuse, mental health issues... There’s a wide variety of reasons.

      Is this what people are talking about when they refer to “survival sex workers”?
      Yeah, but I find that term kind of “social worker-y.” There’s a mix of different people who work outdoors. Some for survival, some don’t have houses and can’t work out of a location. Poverty, lack of housing, and stigma play a huge role in people not being able to move off the street. So maybe the court is thinking that if we open up the bawdy house ruling, this group can just move off the street. That’s just not going to happen. They’ve never been out there, they don’t know what the streets are like. We’ve been really trying to bring the issue that the communicating law was not removed into focus, because it’s very wrong. What their conclusion was in the ruling—it was actually a two-to-three ruling—two judges deemed the law unconstitutional, but three did not—was that the nuisance issue of communicating was more important than the well-being of street workers. Basically, they chose the “nuisance” aspect for the community at large over the safety of sex workers. Which is disgusting.

      You are more of an advocate for decriminalization rather than legalization. Can you explain the difference?
      The legalization scheme still views sex work as something negative, something that needs to be heavily regulated and heavily controlled, beyond any other sort of job. In places like Nevada and Amsterdam, legalization presents itself with high licensing fees, both for the sex workers themselves and also to open a location. In Nevada, you’re not able to work out of your own home, the brothels are the places that are contained. And they’re run by people who are able to afford those really exorbitant fees. So they’re not run by sex workers, they’re run by business people who are not necessarily out there for the benefit of sex workers. You can see those attitudes reflected in the laws that exist within the brothels. In Nevada, to keep your licence you have to see a doctor once a month for STI checks. That’s problematic because the clients aren’t getting tested, and it presents a picture that sex workers are dirty and spreading disease, and they’re the ones who need to be forced to see a doctor because they can’t make up their own minds. There are a lot of negative aspects that we’ve seen in legalization, and it’s not sex workers at the forefront of the dialogue. No one is asking them, "What would be best for you? What would you like to see?” It’s not like that, it’s not empowering. It’s very much the government deciding what’s best.

      In contrast we have New South Wales in Australia, where prostitution has been decriminalized. It’s very different from the legalized climate. You’re not seeing the high licensing fees. To open a brothel, let’s say it’s a co-op without a manager, it’s split equally—you’re not required to get a license. It’s just a regular business and it’s set up like any other. The cost is relative, it’s not like a hundred times more than any other operating license. In those locations, sex workers can work by themselves or with other people and there are no forced health checks, but there is a condom law. Condoms are required all the time. And there’s a health and safety inspection, as would be done in any other business where blood and bodily fluids are present. And it’s not done in a stigmatizing way. What decriminalization does differently is it allows sex work to be viewed as a legitimate job, and it takes its cues from sex workers.

      For street-based sex workers in the decriminalized environment, there’s zoning. In legalization there are red light areas, or, in Nevada, the  brothels are out in the desert, in the middle of nowhere. So that sends a message that either we’re a circus sideshow tourist-y thing, or we should be far away from the general public. In a decriminalized society, there would be respect for zoning, but there wouldn’t be a specific area that you had to work out of. Same goes for street-based work. With zoning, there are rules, like, you can’t be this close to a school or hospital, but that makes sense. The views that greater society hold move with legality. Having an environment where sex work is heavily controlled by other people still fuels the view that sex work is dirty, is wrong somehow, as opposed to decriminalization, where we can start on the path where sex work is viewed as legitimate, where we are seen as people.

      Why do you think these legislative changes have taken place at this time? Do you see that as a positive thing?
      I do. There’s been a lot of research and discussion because there has been a clear increase of violence and murders of sex workers, particularly after the communicating law was put in place.

      It’s a “one step forward, two steps back kind” of thing.
      Yeah, and the view that street-based sex workers are different than indoor sex workers... we’re all people, deserving of safety. I take issue with that; I think that this ruling did send that message, and that’s worrisome to me. Definitely one step forward, two steps back.

      Do you think legislation will allow a more respectful, normative dialogue to develop between sex workers and society at large?
      Yes and no, but it all comes back to the communicating law. Without that law struck down, the concern for all of our safety is not being taken into consideration. It’s a good step for some sex workers, and it’s not for others. I feel that what they’ve done is really thrown street-based sex workers under the bus. Statistically, somewhere between 10 and 20 percent work on the street, but they make up like 97 percent of sex workers who are charged. It’s so important that the appeals court recognizes that.

      Does the communicating law factor into bawdy houses at all? You still have to acquire clients somehow.
      Technically the law says that you can’t communicate in a public place or a place open to the public. I guess it would depend on whether the internet or phone would be considered a public place. But the law is aimed at street-based workers. It was enacted primarily to deal with the “nuisance” problem. It’s a very NIMBY law, not for the safety of sex workers.


      Amy Lebovitch

      -

      Topics: Ontario, protitution, brothels, sex

      Comments