By Leilani Graham-Laidlaw, Current Affairs Columnist
Stephen Harper’s got a prostitute problem on his hands. Unfortunately for Ignatieff, it’s not some scandal he’s been caught in. No, the problem is that they’re demanding rights.
On Sept. 28, three women who advocate the decriminalization of prostitution successfully challenged several sections of the Criminal Code relating to prostitution before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. They claimed that these “bizarre and outdated” sections of the law promoted violence.
Terri Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott have all worked as sex workers. All three argue that they be allowed to conduct their business in the safest way possible. They say that the current legal framework prevents that from happening.
Now, it’s perfectly legal in Canada to perform sex acts for money. Whatever goes on between two or more consenting adults in private is none of the government’s business. But almost everything else related to sex work is illegal.
Most of the prostitution laws under the criminal code – trafficking anyone for sex, causing addiction as a way to control someone, and using minors for prostitution – are all still intact, as they should be. No one’s arguing that all sex-trafficking should be allowed, or that minors should be allowed to quit school for sex work.
But three sections in the Code are pushing prostitutes into dangerous corners, and that shouldn’t be allowed.
Section 212a, any form of communication for “illicit sexual intercourse,” is worth up to ten years in jail. So you can’t ask anyone about their fees or what they’re comfortable with, which precludes being able to screen potentially violent clients.
Section 210, “keeping common bawdy-house” (according to the 1892 wording), or running a brothel, means up to two years with the possibility of losing your house. You can’t operate a space for sex workers to ply their trade, so you can’t have any reasonable safety measures—guards, or a familiar escape hatch to get away from an abusive ‘bad date.’
Section 212j, living off “the avails of prostitution,” means up to ten years behind bars for anyone known to be “habitually” in the presence of a sex worker. So you also can’t spend any of the money, and you can’t spend that money on anyone else—not even to pay rent with a partner or feed your child.
This means police are called in to brothels to plunder furniture (“avails”) and kick people out of the “bawdy-house.” They’re not usually called in to deal with violent johns or drug-pushing pimps or psychological abuse. It’s safer for the women to ply this trade underground, in back alleys, stranger’s cars and hotel rooms without any means of protection, than it is to risk being thrown in jail for creating a safe space and a screening system.
There’s a chance this might change if the courts uphold Justice Himel’s ruling that the three sections “are not in accord with the principal of fundamental justice … (and) force prostitutes to choose between their liberty and their right to security of the person.” The changes outlined in her ruling could lead to a clearer situation for police where prostitutes aren’t both victims and criminals, and eliminate the catch-22 for sex workers in which they’re choosing between expensive legal hell or physical/psychological hell.
While Justice Himel’s ruling is a step in the right direction, nothing’s set in stone until the issue hits the Supreme Court. The ruling will help set a legal precedent for other provinces, but it’s not at the national level yet.
The government is hoping it will never get to that level. A 30-day stay on the ruling was slapped down less than 24 hours after it was made, effectively invalidating it until next week, and the Tories will be appealing. In the words of Conservative Party Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, while all prostitutes are “victims,” they’re also basically “drug addicts” who cause nothing but “social problems.”
It’s a much more complicated issue, and Nicholson’s grandstanding won’t change that. We haven’t even touched on the differences between decriminalization and legalization/regulation of brothels (would there be taxes? special city zoning? STI screening? licences?). Nor have we tackled all the different services outside of ‘straight’ prostitution, or the social stigma that clings to streetwalkers like a pleather miniskirt.
Even the perverse glamour that’s attached to ‘women of the night’ has skewed our perceptions—movies like Pretty Woman, the Girlfriend Experience, or that fantastic British TV show, Diary of a Call Girl—all provide an image of glamourous women with some job issues. Then there are the deadbeat-victim themes: the Pickton case, gory victims on CSI, or the beautifully complex hooker-murder movie The Dead Girl. There’s as many different stories out there as there are services on offer, and our current laws can barely make sense of it.
Harper’s no Richard Gere. But if he were, getting all the Julia Roberts-es out of this legal mire (and away from violent situations) would be a lot easier. He might prove a little more compassionate, more willing to man up and fix these laws.