January 24, 2014

Supreme court strikes down prostitution laws

By Jane Bouey,
Peoples Voice Newspaper

            In a unanimous landmark decision on Dec. 20, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three provisions of Canada's Criminal Code: s. 210 (keeping or being found in a bawdy house), s. 212(1)(j) (living on the avails of prostitution), and s. 213(1)(c) (communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution). The Court found that those provisions violate the right to security of the person protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and gave the federal government one year to change the laws.

            The Bedford case was initiated in 2007 by three Ontario sex workers. Terri Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott challenged the laws which they believe violate sex workers' constitutional right to security of the person.

            The Supreme Court decision stated, "The prohibitions at issue do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate. They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky ‑ but legal ‑ activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risk."    

            Federal and provincial governments had argued that the prohibitions were necessary. Parties granted intervener status supporting the Federal Government included Canada's most socially conservative forces such as the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Christian Legal Fellowship and REAL Women of Canada.    

            The decision to overturn these provisions was hailed as a great victory by some feminists, and denounced by others. The debate around how our society should treat sex work has become extremely polarized. Even whether one uses the term "sex work" or "prostitution" is seen as a sign of where one stands, i.e. whether one views sex workers as members of the working class.

            There is wide agreement with striking down the law against communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution, and agreement that some (if not most) women are forced into sex work because of conditions of economic, social and racial inequality. Most agree that many women engaged in sex work face disproportionate levels of horrific violence and even murder.

            However, there is a sharp division over taking legal steps that would allow those in sex work to better organize themselves: does this increase or decrease the security of those sex workers? Not surprisingly, one main epicenter of the debate is in East Vancouver ‑ the killing fields of mass murderer Robert Pickton.

            The Women's Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution (also an intervenor in the case) argues that "laws that prevent men from buying, selling and profiting from women involved in prostitution are important protections that must be retained." The Coalition includes the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, Native Women's Association of Canada (NWAC), Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes, La concertation des luttes contre l'exploitation sexuelle, Regroupement québécois des centres d'aide et de lutte contre les agressions-caractere sexuel (CALACS), and Vancouver Rape Relief.

            The NWAC stated that, "prostitution exploits and increases the inequality of Aboriginal women and girls on the basis of their gender, race, age, disability and poverty."

            Those supporting the legal challenge include sex workers who are attempting to organize to protect themselves, women and others who do frontline work alongside sex workers, and those who have taken positions in solidarity with those organizations. This would include many trade union women's committees, community based women's organizations, and some Indigenous women and women from racialized communities. Those groups took the position that all three provisions should be struck down.

            Among those celebrating the Bedford decision, Vancouver East NDP MP Libby Davies called it "significant."

            "The Supreme Court ruled that bans on street soliciting, brothels, and people living off the avails of prostitution are unconstitutional and create serious risks for sex workers," said Davies. "It has taken many years of advocacy and legal challenge to reach this historic decision, and I was so happy to celebrate the ruling surrounded by those who worked so hard to challenge the status quo."

            Pivot Legal Society, an East Vancouver‑based organization which was also an intervenor, welcomed the ruling.

            Pivot writes, "Under the current laws, sex workers are subject to severe forms of violence and discrimination. Pivot's commitment to the decriminalization of adult sex work is informed by more than a decade of work with sex workers from the Downtown Eastside, across Canada and around the world. Decriminalization is a necessary step to protecting the safety and rights of sex workers by ensuring that they have full access to legal protections and control over the conditions of their work. In addition to law reform, Pivot is also committed to challenging oppressive social conditions that lead some women and men to get involved in sex work. These social conditions include poverty, homelessness, addiction and colonization. We believe that every sex worker ‑ whether she or he wishes to remain in sex work or move into a different type of work ‑ should be fully supported to do so. All sex workers deserve to have their choices respected and be able to work safely, without fear of violence, discrimination and social stigma."

            The debate has now focused on what the Federal Government should do, in particular whether what has become known as the "Nordic Model" should be implemented here in Canada. We will explore that debate in upcoming issues of People's Voice.

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