Prostitution Law for Dummies: Ontario’s Recent Court Ruling in 9 Simple Points

The last seven days have been kind of a big deal in Ontario when it comes to human trafficking and prostitution.  If you have somehow missed it in the news or are unclear as to what actually happened last week, here is a list of the basics you must know.

  • Two sex trade workers, Terry-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott (along with Amy Lebovitch and their lawyer Alan Young), launched a constitutional challenge of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws.  In simple terms, they want prostitution and everything surrounding the actual act to be decriminalized. This would make prostitution legal, allowing sex workers to operate freely. (To be more precise, the process of prostitution would be allowed.  Check out what John posted in the comments section to understand this more).
  • Last week on September 28th the Ontario Superior Court ruled in favour of their proposal.  As a result, now in Ontario it is no longer illegal to keep a bawdy house (brothel), communicate for the purposes of prostitution, or live off the avails of the sex trade.
  • Bedford said that is was like emancipation day for sex workers, because now they can work from the safety of their homes instead of facing the dangers of the street.  Valerie Scott said that now sex workers can “pick up the phone and call the police to report a bad client.”
  • Not everyone is celebrating.  Many claim that prostitution and sex trafficking are linked. MP Joy Smith, who works with victims of trafficking, had girls call her in tears when they found out about the Ontario court ruling.
  • Police point out that in some cases trafficking victims are unwilling to cooperate with police because they fear their traffickers.  In such cases, police have been able to charge the trafficker with living off the avails of prostitution.  Now they can no longer do this.  This means that pimps cannot be charged for living off the money that their girls bring them through forced prostitution.
  • Some argue that prostitution is a chosen profession, just like any other.  However several studies show that most ‘sex workers’ chose their ‘profession’  because of dire circumstances that were not based on real choice at all.  Many are too drug-addicted and manipulated by pimps to make their own decisions.  Benjamin Perrin points out in his CBC radio interview and Globe and Mail article that though Bedford is a confident woman in her 50s today, her affidavit tells the story of a childhood filled with physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.  At 16 years old while she was under provincial child protection, she met “an abusive 37-year old drug dealer and drug addict” and was sold for sex to fund their drug addictions.
  • Anti-trafficking groups want Canada to adopt the Swedish model of dealing with prostitution, which criminalizes the men who buy sex and offers the sellers of it with help to leave the industry.
  • Justice Susan Himel, who made the court decision, stated that the information about sex trafficking brought to her attention was “incidental and not directly relevant to her decision.”  In other words, she does not believe there to be a link at all between prostitution and sex trafficking.
  • The federal government is going to appeal the court ruling in an attempt to reverse the decision made by Himel.

The debate about prostitution and human trafficking in Canada is going to be quite a hot one for a while.  Here are a couple of resources that can help you gain an understanding about the ruling and the prostitution debate.

I promise to keep you up to date with how this develops.  What do you think about the Ontario court ruling?  Feel free to post a comment to kick off the conversation!

Michelle Brock

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  1. Alexa says

    Joy Smith, who works with victims of trafficking, had girls call her in tears when they found out about the Ontario court ruling

    Oh, bullshit.

    Two points. First off, the ruling did nothing to make it legal to force or coerce someone into doing sex work. That is still just as illegal as it always has been. Quit making it sound like this is now legal, because it isn’t (and you know it isn’t).

    Second, regarding “she does not believe there to be a link at all between prostitution and sex trafficking.” There isn’t. At least, not any more so than a link between domestic work and human trafficking. Far more women are trafficked into domestic servitude than sex work, yet I don’t see you guys ranting and raving over making that illegal like you do prostitution. I wonder why that is?

    That was a rhetorical question, by the way. We all know the answer. 😉

    • says

      Thanks for your comment Alexa, however I have to disagree with you. A few points:

      No, this ruling did not make it legal to coerce someone into sex work. Problem is, it’s a lot more difficult for police to charge someone for pimping when the tools they usually use are gone. Living off the avails of prostitution is often the only thing that they can use to charge a trafficker, especially when the victim is too afraid to speak. We definitely need better laws to combat trafficking.

      To address your other point, this is a blog on sex trafficking. That is the reason I do not focus on domestic servitude. From what I do know of it however, we need laws to better protect those in domestic servitude as well. An argument is sometimes made that we shouldn’t get rid of banking just because there is fraud, and therefore we should not get rid of prostitution just because there is trafficking. The difference is that the amount of fraud that goes on in the big scheme of things is a tiny proportion of the banking industry as a whole. However, the proportion of girls and women who are being exploited within the sex trade whole is much more significant.

      When Amsterdam opened its doors to legalization, trafficking and other forms of organized crime exploded, to the point that now they are back-tracking and calling legalization a big failure.


  2. Alexa says

    I often wonder if you and people like you even bother to consider how many more victims could actually be saved/helped if you really did focus on eliminating the trafficking part of it rather than trying to eradicate prostitution altogether. The exchange of sex for something of value has existed since the dawn of time, it exists worldwide now, and it will exist long after you and I leave this planet, despite anything you or anyone else does. History has demonstrated that vividly – even in places where the penalty for prostitution is death, it goes on. So trying to eradicate prostitution as the solution to human/sex trafficking clearly doesn’t work.

    Anyone who invests even a basic amount of time and research into it can see this, so when I see people like you taking this kind of approach, I have to call into question your true motive. Clearly, you’re not just interested in helping the victims of human trafficking as you purport. Why not just come out and say you’re trying to eliminate prostitution and, oh yeah, maybe we can help a few trafficking victims as well, rather than disingenuously trying to make it appear as if you really care about those who are truly trafficked (vs. anyone selling sex consensually)? Why not be honest about your motives rather than hiding behind this veil of actually caring about people who’re coerced or forced into sex work? Why not actually use the limited resources that you and others have to actually help those who’re trafficked rather than wasting them on trying to accomplish something that has never been and can never be done?

    Those of us who engage in prostitution consensually actually do care about victims of coercion or force, and, for the record, and we work every single day of the year to get those who’re being forced into the work out of it, safely. Your efforts not only make that more difficult (keeping prostitution illegal makes it impossible for trafficking victims to go to the police because they know they’ll be charged with a crime, even as a victim, for example), but makes it unsafe for people like me (i.e., those who do sex work consensually) to work safely. Prostitutes have died because what they were doing was illegal. So, in reality, your work actually harms many more people overall, including those you claim to be trying to help. That’s right, sex workers are robbed, beaten, raped, and killed specifically because of the work that people like you do to make consensual prostitution illegal. How do you even live with yourself, given that fact? You could only live with yourself if you didn’t care for the people you’re allegedly trying to help and are more interested in making a name for yourself or trying to raise money in my opinion (otherwise you’d actually be trying to do what works).

    As for the situation in the Netherlands, it’s clear you haven’t done your homework there. Yes, they’re having issues with trafficking. Those are due to factors beyond the legalization of prostitution, however, including lax regulation, corrupt officials, and a failure to enforce their border and immigration laws. New Zealand legalized prostitution and has not had anything like the experience in the Netherlands because they’re managing their system more effectively (for example, they don’t have the border and immigration problem that the Dutch do as a result of being surrounded by water). So, clearly, the simple legalization of prostitution isn’t directly related to human trafficking (I believe the Judge Himel stated this in her ruling).

    If you folks would just bother to be honest with everyone, especially yourselves, and actually tried to understand the problem, rather than just adopting the same, tired old (read: failed) approach that every other activist has, and shooting for an impossible goal, you’d be surprised at what you might actually be able to do. Fortunately, the judge in this case WAS able to see beyond the rhetoric of people like you and issue a ruling that helps those who do the work consensually AND those who’re forced into it. I hope that portends a trend in the judicial system (not just in Canada, but worldwide).

    Thanks for taking the time to read this. I hope it will move you to adopt a more honest approach to what you’re trying to accomplish.

    • says

      To respond to your suggestion about using our resources to actually fight trafficking itself – well to be honest I have always had more of a ‘systemic solutions’ type of mentality when it comes to solving problems. If my boat is sinking, I would rather fix the hole than keep trying to get water out. When it comes to the issue of sex trafficking I take a similar approach. Some are passionate about rescue and aftercare alone, whereas my area of interest lies with the systemic issues that make trafficking possible in the first place, and dealing with those. The ultimate systemic cause is demand for paid sex. Without it there would be no money for traffickers. So my goal is to reduce demand, which I know is a problem for sex workers because this would affect their clients.

      I assure you, my motive here is not to make a buck or a name for myself. Hope for the Sold is a blog. Writers on average aren’t exactly known for taking in boatloads, and I certainly have not made money pushing people’s buttons. And just so you know, there are many people who have invested plenty of time and resources into researching this stuff – part of my conclusions have come from their work. So be careful before you say that anyone who invests time into this ends up with the same opinion as you. There are many people on both side of the debate, and a lot of research on both sides as well.

      We are on the same page on one thing, which I think you missed. I do not want women to be criminalized for sex work. In this regard I support the Ontario court decision. But I do want men to be charged for buying sex. So that is where we differ.

      In regard to New Zealand, there are some interesting findings from this report:
      (ie. violence in prostitution continued after decriminalization, street prostitution increased in certain parts of the country, and police found it more difficult to investigate trafficking cases due to their new restrictions).

      Alexa, I hope that despite our clash in opinion, we can discuss this in a respectable way that is constructive to everyone else who may be reading. Thanks for taking the time to voice your concerns.

  3. John says

    We spoke about this case (no surprise) in my criminal law and public law classes over the last week. The case is really easily misunderstood, and with respect, I think you’re a little off here Michelle.

    The case did not make it legal to have sex for money in Canada. It already is legal to have sex for money in Canada. The laws struck down made it illegal to communicate for the purposes of having sex for money, illegal to live off the money that someone (including yourself) earns by having sex, and illegal to run or be in a house in which people have sex for money. To be honest, I can’t really defend these laws. They were really peripheral, and unfairly hampered the safety of women who were doing sex work that is actually legal.

    If the federal government wants to make it illegal to have sex for money, they should have made that the law, quite simply. Or, better yet, they should make it illegal to pay money for sex, and not criminalize the girls.

    The most unfortunate thing about this ruling is that it’s perceived as making prostitution legal, which may have the consequence of increasing demand.

    • says

      Thanks John for your comment. I am so glad to hear that your classes have been talking about this issue, and for that reason the ruling has been good. It’s about time we had discussion about these things, as grey and complex as the issue seems.

      Thanks for clarifying the legalization terminology, I realize I may have misled people a bit in regard to what Canada’s prostitution laws are currently. It does seem silly to have the act of prostitution legal while every act around it is not. Basically, women would get charged for communicating for purposes of paid sex, operating out of their homes, and buying groceries with the money they made from sex, while the men that paid them for sex would get no punishment because technically the ACT is legal. Poor law-making, especially because the punishment is stacked against women, not the men who are just as much part of the deal.

      Prostitution is either legal or it is not, and making this decision is where the government is headed I think.

      I agree that it would be good for the women to be decriminalized and the men to be criminalized. This is the Swedish model at its core. Reduced demand ultimately is the only thing that will put an end to exploitation. However I have a feeling sex workers want it all decriminalized: the selling of sex AND the buying of it. Otherwise they would have no clients, and therefore no income. Problem is…their clients are also the ones who are providing demand for victims of trafficking, though I am sure many johns are unaware of this. This makes the ‘decrease demand’ model extremely controversial.

      While I am grateful that the Himel cleaned up a law that was very discriminatory against women, my concern lies in that she sees no connection between trafficking and prostitution. Once again, highly controversial topic. Thanks for your insight John.

  4. Melanie says

    This is for Alexa who compared being a forced sex trade worker to a forced toilet bowl cleaner…trust me when I tell you there is a HUGE difference. I was a forced sex trade worker. I was forced to endure rape by the three men who forced me into the trade. I was forced to hand over every dime I made. I endured beatings and humilation that NO ONE can ever possibly understand unless they have been through this. You NEVER feel safe. You are constantly terrorized by your controllers, the men who pay for you, the other girls on the street, and of being arrested. Terrified your family will find out that you are a whore. Scared to run scared to stay. KNowing if you stay you could be killed by a vicious beating or a psychopathic killer who hates hookers and sees them as garbage. Scared to leave because they will find you. Forced to endure the disgusting sexual perogatives of men who have no compunction about harming you because you are a whore and no one cares about you. The only value anyone has for you is sex and money. Nothing is against the rules when it comes to being abused by whoever wants to do it.
    You hate your self and are repulsed by yourself for “letting” this happen to you. When in reality you had no choice. ALL your choices were taken from you, the choice of when you could eat was taken from you. What you could wear was is taken from you. What color your hair was taken from you. They think you would look better blonde…you become a blonde. They make you work however long they want you to work…in whatever conditions. If it -30 and they want you to work…you work. They don’t care if you are freezing to death too cold to walk…to cold to think straight…that you would get into a warm car with anyone just to be warm.
    That’s a damn site more than being forced to clean toilets. Forced labour and confinement is wrong in any sense. But to be forced to endure being RAPED by captures and customers ten to 15 times a day is a little different. How would you feel if it was your daughter, or sister or someone else you love and care about?
    Take away the laws that criminlize what pimps do then you make the abuse more accessible to more abusers and harder for women to get out. It is already hard if not impossible.
    I am one of those women who cried when I heard the ruling. Now, this case bringing my whole experience back into my face I am ready to face my abusers and am filing criminal charges against them before it’s too late. Twenty years is a long time to wait for justice but I will have it, and I hope to be an inspiration to others to do the same.

    You NEVER get over this kind of thing. I could get over being beaten and forced to clean a toilet. Get over being raped repeatedly so someone can buy gold or clothes? Never.

    • says

      Thanks for this Melanie. My heart goes out to you and all you have gone through. Thank you for being willing to speak out about your experience, and the realities of forced prostitution.


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