Don't Oversimplify Canada's Prostitution Debate

I always thought legalizing prostitution was the right thing to do. It would bring everything out into the open, making sex workers safer. But the debate surrounding prostitution laws in Canada isn't simple and two-sided

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Jun 12 2013, 7:29pm


Photos from a sex workers demonstration in Montreal this past weekend, by Joel Balsam.

I always thought legalizing prostitution was the right thing to do. It would bring everything out into the open, making sex workers safer. They'd be able to hire protection and if a john tried to hurt them, they'd be able to report it to the police. It's sort of the stock response for young, liberal-minded people whenever they're asked this question.

But the debate surrounding prostitution laws in Canada isn't simple and two-sided; decriminalization and criminalization aren't the only two options, and both have as many flaws as they do merits. At the Supreme Court hearing on prostitution laws on June 13, a coalition of women's groups will be arguing for a third possible solution—decriminalizing the women in prostitution, but upholding the laws targeting pimps and johns.

The Women's Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution is one of ten groups that have been granted the status of intervener, a group with a unique perspective to be heard by the court before they make their decision. 

Since the 1970s, prostitution has been legal in Canada, but almost any activity related to it has not, making it unnecessarily hard for prostitutes to work openly, in a safe space. In 2012, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the section of the Criminal Code that bans brothels (the Canadian government is now appealing this decision), but reaffirmed the ban on communication for the purposes of prostitution and the ban on living off the avails of prostitution. 

The Coalition, which includes groups like the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Frye Societies, the Native Women's Association of Canada, along with several others, will argue laws that stop men from buying, selling, and making money off of prostituted women should be upheld, while laws criminalizing prostitutes should be removed because most enter the profession as a result of economic, social, and racial barriers.

Prostitution is by no means an institution of equality. Let's put aside for a minute the idea that being able to sell sexual services means we, as women, are empowered to do as we please with our bodies. Most women in prostitution start out as kids after being sexually abused. Penniless and alone, they're easy targets for pimps and johns. Are they “choosing” this? Are these girls, most under the age of 18, equipped to make a decision that's very likely to put them in harm's way? Right from the start, power is on the side of the party with money. The prostitutes in these cases, and there are many, are powerless.

“Prostitution is a very effective form of exploitation of women – we don't think it's a coincidence that most people in prostitution are women, and that most pimps and all johns are men,” says Hilla Kerner, a spokeswoman for the Coalition. 

But Terri-Jean Bedford, one of the three women arguing for the complete decriminalization of prostitution, tells VICE Canada that continuing to prosecute those who buy these services and “those who help sex workers” would still endanger sex workers themselves.

“The idea is a scam, and is just done when the state wants to pass moral judgment on selling of sex, whatever that means,” says Bedford, adding that if the existing laws are struck down for good and nothing replaces them, other existing laws can be used to control the mistreatment of women in the sex trade and in other occupations.

Bedford, a former dominatrix who was arrested in 1994 for operating a bawdy house, is arguing along with former and current sex workers, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch, that laws surrounding prostitution violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Removing all of these laws and allowing bawdy houses to run openly, for example, will “allow sex workers a safe place to operate and not punish landlords who offer such a place,” says Bedford. 

Bedford v Canada reveals some fundamental divisions between groups who work with and fight for the rights of sex workers; many of them disagree on whether or not most sex workers were forced into the profession.

The Coalition, on one hand, argues that most women don't willingly start selling their bodies, and that the rights of the very few who choose to do so don't override society's responsibility to protect the majority of women who don't.

The Coalition's model isn't entirely new and has been proven effective in other countries. It's been in place in Sweden for over a decade, and was more recently introduced in Norway and Iceland: all countries known for their commitment to gender equality.

Since Sweden criminalized pimping and buying sex, and introduced housing, detox, job training and education to women who wanted to exit prostitution in 1999, street prostitution in the country has dropped by half. Public support of the law has only increased since then.

The French National Assembly also passed a resolution to this effect, although a law has yet to be enacted. Overall, the trend seems to be towards an asymmetrical criminalization system.

So what happens to those women who chose to enter sex work by choice, who would lose business if men were criminalized? Janine Benedet, the Coalition's lawer, says she's always found this to be a strange question. “We don't normally say we shouldn't criminalize that because somebody chose to do it. We often say the opposite of it – we shouldn't criminalize people for things that are not their choice.”

Whether or not it's a woman's choice to become a prostitute is often a complicated question; Aboriginal prostitutes, who come from poverty-ridden reserves, where economic opportunity is limited, are one example of where the answer isn't crystal clear. I find it hard to believe these women chose prostitution, risking disease and rape, because they were bored by their day jobs. It's really the only alternative that allowed them to get by.

Of course it's condescending to assume that not a single woman in the sex trade has a clue what she's doing, that she's being exploited and doesn't know it. But there are way too many women who were cornered into this, or who desperately want to leave, for there to be no protection in place for them.

The Coalition wants to provide women with an alternative to sex work. “What the members of the Coalition hear over and over again is that women would rather be earning their income in some other fashion.”

The Native Women's Association of Canada is worried brothels will follow jails and residential schools as the next exploitative institution to house Aboriginal women in the country, says Benedet, who represents the organization. “They want something better and are worried that a system in which completely legalized is going to make it much harder for them to get there,” she says.

This is why the coalition's model works. Their goals extend beyond curbing the violence in the sex trade and making abuse easier for prostitutes to report; they want to see prostitution abolished for good, but that’s easier said than done. Many sex workers would need detox, education, childcare, livable welfare, and housing, says Benedet. “There's a lot of interlocking supports. The government should go at it from the other end and that should be the first priority.”

Such a complicated problem deserves a less simplistic solution than decriminalization. There are no easy answers to such a multi-faceted issue—where women are inarguably dependent on a profession that is harming them in a variety of ways—but it deserves a more thorough conversation than simply discussing whether or not it should be completely legal.


Previously:

A Sex Worker Breaks Down Why Ontario's Prostitution Laws Still Suck

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