Yesterday was a big day in Ontario regarding prostitution laws. The Ontario Court of Appeal, the province’s highest court, legalized brothels based on the argument that “Ontario’s current anti-prostitution laws place unconstitutional restrictions on prostitutes’ ability to protect themselves.”
If you are new to this issue or want to understand today’s ruling in simple terms, here is a summary of what has happened to date.
Pre-September of 2010:
According to the law, prostitution itself was legal but everything surrounding it was illegal. For example, it was illegal to:
1. Communicate for the purposes of prostitution – ie. soliciting on the street
2. Live off the avails of prostitution – ie. pimps living off the money they receive from exploiting women and children, or someone in the trade paying for their child’s education with money from prostitution
3. Keep a bawdy house – ie. operating or working out of a brothel, which could include residences used by groups of women
Leading up to September 28th, 2010:
Dominatrix Terry-Jean Bedford and ex-prostitute 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 wanted prostitution and everything surrounding the actual act to be decriminalized.
September 28, 2010:
The Ontario Superior Court ruled in favour of their proposal by striking down the three anti-prostitution laws. This meant it was no longer illegal to keep a bawdy house (brothel), communicate for the purposes of prostitution, or live off the avails of selling sex. The federal government appealed the Ontario Superior Court’s decision, in effect reversing it until it was looked at again by the Ontario Court of Appeal.
March 26, 2012, Ontario Court of Appeal:
Five judges found that banning bawdy houses and living off the avails of prostitution were unconstitutional, but agreed with the Crown that the open solicitation of prostitution should be illegal. What exactly does this mean? It means that those in the sex trade can legally run or work out of brothels in Ontario, as well as hire drivers, bodyguards and support staff. From a legal standpoint, it makes prostitution just like any other taxable profession. Bodyguards and staff can legally be hired as early as April, but the brothel ban is still in effect for up to a year, giving the Crown the chance to appeal. This would mean that the case will go before the Supreme Court of Canada. Whatever they decide will be the ultimate decision and will affect the entire country, not just Ontario.
There is no question that Canada’s prostitution laws have not made sense or protected women. The fact that prostitution itself has been legal while everything surrounding it has been illegal makes for poor lawmaking. New prostitution laws are absolutely necessary, but that is where my agreement with the pro-sex work group ends. They want the laws changed so that the entire industry is decriminalized, making the sex trade a fully legal. But there are many, myself included, who want the laws changed so that women can be empowered to leave the trade, as the majority of those in the sex trade desperately want out but have no exit strategy.
Terry-Jean Bedford and her group assume that they are the only ones who will be affected by the Court’s ruling. They assume that most working in the sex trade have chosen to enter it willingly and that this will empower them to work like any other tax-paying citizen. But here are some of my concerns:
It is not the law that makes prostitution dangerous. Prostitution is inherently dangerous. Even when it is legal or “high end,” women are encouraged to have panic buttons and learn skills that get them out of life-threatening situations. Is this the type of industry we want to promote as a career choice for young girls? Terry-Jean Beford herself entered the trade as a teenager, manipulated by an abusive boyfriend. There are definitely some who make a decision as adults to prostitute themselves, but it is incredibly naive to think that most enter in this way.
Global studies have demonstrated that whether prostitution takes place indoors or outdoors, many women experience post traumatic stress disorder as a result of being in the trade.
The ruling allows those in the trade to hire bodyguards, drivers, and support staff. For the small minority who is able to call the shots, this could arguably make them safer. However this provision does absolutely nothing to protect the unfortunate majority which includes trafficking victims and those who are manipulated and controlled by pimps. Though the Court clarified that no one can live off the avails of “exploitation,” now pimps and traffickers can pose as drivers and bodyguards, giving them a legal loophole to continue exploiting women and children.
Those who are pro-prostitution often us the case of Robert Pickton, a BC man who savagely murdered dozens of prostituted women, as an example of why legal brothels would make women safer. But Angel Wolfe, the daughter of one of the women killed by Pickton, points out that legal brothels would make it more difficult for police to get warrants for sweeps that uncover victims of trafficking and abuse. Now it is easier to hide trafficking victims.
When you legalize any component of the prostitution industry, you increase demand for paid sex. This gives the green light for traffickers to increase supply to help meet that demand. If a “legal” woman refuses a john because he seems unsafe or because she does not like him, where is he going to take his fantasies instead? Trafficking victims are the ones who will end up with the most abusive and violent men, as their so-called “bodyguards” now have the competitive advantage of their girls being willing to “do anything.”
What bothers me is that I have never heard people like Terry-Jean Bedford or those who are pro-prostitution mention victims of trafficking or exploitation, except in an attempt to sweep them under the rug and disconnect them from the argument altogether. Are we so blinded as a society that we think we can disconnect prostitution from trafficking and exploitation? This certainly did not work in Amsterdam or Las Vegas, where trafficking networks run with seamless efficiency due to high demand for paid sex.
Window of Opportunity:
The Crown will doubtless apply for a stay from the Supreme Court, meaning that this decision would be decided in the highest court of Canada. That will be the final decision for prostitution law in our country. One article states:
The landmark decision is binding on Ontario courts and sets up a final showdown at the Supreme Court of Canada next fall or in early 2013.
This means that right now we have a window of opportunity to push our government to change prostitution laws. The Court’s responsibility is to make sure that laws are not unconstitutional, but the Crown’s responsibility is to actually create laws that are good for society. This means that we must do everything we can to encourage our Members of Parliament to push our country in the opposite direction – away from a fully legal sex industry that promotes exploitation – and towards laws that protect women and decrease demand for paid sex.
We should be looking at the example of Sweden. In contrast to legalization or full decriminalization of prostitution, Sweden’s approach has significantly cut down human trafficking levels. It has criminalized the purchase of sex while decriminalizing the selling of it. This has decreased demand for paid sex, reducing monetary incentives for traffickers to set up shop. Because its success has encouraged other countries to adopt it, this approach is now known as the “Nordic Model.” This is the direction we should be headed. You can read more about the Nordic Model here.
What You Can Do Now:
As my friend John MacMillan has aptly pointed out, Courts are not swayed by public opinion – in fact when the Charter is involved, the role of a court is often to protect the rights of a minority from public opinion. Petitioning the government is our best course of action right now. If you want Canada to head in the direction of the Nordic model that prevents exploitation instead of supporting a fully decriminalized prostitution industry, here are three steps you can take:
TWO. Contact your Member of Parliament and let them know how you feel about this issue. They need to know that Canadians care and that this is priority. Don’t know what to say? Here is an outline. Personalize it and send it to your MP.
THREE. Hope for the Sold is currently raising funds to make a documentary about legalization of prostitution and its connection to sex trafficking. We believe that film is a powerful way to help sway opinion and change minds, and our hope is that this film will have an impact that will help governments around the world take an approach that prevents trafficking and exploitation as opposed to legalizing an industry that us full of violence and abuse. Due to the generosity of blog readers, small businesses, friends, and family, we have raised $23,000 to date. We have $57,000 more to raise. As soon as we have $80,000 we will hit the road. Clearly this is an urgent matter, so please consider supporting this project! All donations are eligible for tax receipts. Watch our pitch video and support the film here.
4. Please stay tuned. This week I will give you further instructions from the Crown on how to proceed. We MUST be a united front on this issue, and currently there is a plan being formed. Please check back this week to find out how you can be part of this movement. As my friend Tara Teng says: This is NOT the time to stand by and do nothing. We have a window opportunity. Let’s use it.
I leave you with this question: do we care more about the rights of women who want to sell their bodies, or the rights of the exploited who desperately don’t want to? Let’s see the Court’s decision not as a tragedy but an opportunity – as it forces our government to decide where they really stand on this issue.
**Max Waltman at the University of Stockholm found in a recent working paper that the Court of Appeal’s decision misrepresents evidence and contravenes the Charter. Read about Max Waltman’s response here.
**September 2012 update: We are making a documentary about legalization of prostitution, its connection to sex trafficking, and preventative models that decrease sexual exploitation. If you want to help us reach our funding goal for this, get more information here. All donations will receive tax receipts.