“I feel like a citizen”: Canada’s sex-work decision

Warmer indoors, but still cold on the streets: Sex workers' demonstration in Ottawa, January 2012

Partial but major victory today in Canada’s sex-work court case. The full decision is here, and a description of the case here. From the Globe and Mail on today’s ruling:

Ontario’s top court has legalized brothels and will allow prostitutes to have security and other staff that is specifically aimed at protecting prostitutes.

In a landmark decision Monday, the court said that prostitution is extremely dangerous work where inherent risks are multiplied by laws preventing prostitutes from working together under one roof or hiring security staff. As of April 25, they can engage bodyguards or security staff.

In addition to striking down the law against brothels, the court modified a law criminalizing pimping, so that “it will remain illegal to live off the avails of prostitution, but only ‘in circumstances of exploitation.’” But:

The court left intact just one of three key provisions that had been challenged by three current or former prostitutes. It said that communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution will remain illegal. Yet, even that provision narrowly escaped being struck down.

In the court’s only point of disagreement, Mr. Justice James MacPherson and Madam Justice Eleanore Cronk argued that the communication law is unacceptable because it forces street prostitutes to hurriedly negotiate with customers without first being able to size them up.

The refusal of the three other judges to strike down the communication law will likely go a long way to still the fears of politicians and residents who worried about an influx of prostitutes overtly propositioning prospective clients in the streets. …

Activists at a Toronto organization known as Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, said the judges seriously erred by leaving street prostitutes unprotected, eking out a highly-dangerous existence on the extreme margins of society.

“The vast majority of all prostitution arrests are under the communication law,” said Emily Van Der Muelen, an assistant professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. “The failure to strike down the communication law means that the most vulnerable sex workers will continue to face arrest, police harassment, prosecution and violence.” …

The three judges acknowledged that the law may prevent prostitutes from being able to size up potentially dangerous customers before jumping into their cars. However, they reasoned that, with indoor prostitution now being made legal, there will be strong incentives for outdoor prostitutes to move into homes or brothels.

The Court, ominously, did not altogether discard the idea that eliminating prostitution was a legitimate public purpose, noted Carissima Mathen, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.  The judges simply found that the existing laws were not a means to that end. They

rejected arguments that the prostitution laws were linked by a common goal of eradicating prostitution itself. .. [They] agreed today that the provisions under attack were not truly aimed by legislators at eradicating prostitution, as government lawyer[s] had argued in the appeal.

Rather, they said the purposes of the provisions were to eliminate some of the undesirable social consequences of sex work – neighbourhood disruptions and the exploitation of vulnerable women by pimps.

According to Mathen, “The Court also said that [the objective of eliminating prostitution] could be valid; it just wasn’t borne out by the evidence here … This leaves some room for Parliament to come back with a new law that does have that purpose.”

Nonetheless, Valerie Scott, legal coordinator of Sex Professionals of Canada, told reporters: “I feel like a debutante. I feel like a citizen.”

O Canada, just out of curiosity I was wondering how much an hour for thee?

Tell it to the judge: Plaintiff Terri-Jean Bedford, a profesional dominatrix

Action Canada for Population and Development points out that on Monday, the Court of Appeal in the Canadian province of Ontario plans to release its decision on the legality of the province’s repressive prostitution laws. If not earth-shaking, this ruling could at least be street-shaking. Three laws stand under review: they criminalize pimping, keeping a brothel, and communicating for the purpose of prostitution. The last is especially egregious only because its assault on free speech should be evident; in fact, of course, it’s only one of innumerable such laws around the world. An Ontario defense lawyer explains people’s rights, or lack thereof, under the provision, and the catechistic formula makes this darkly funny:

Is it a crime in Canada to engage in prostitution or to obtain the sexual services of a prostitute? Yes.  Either stopping or attempting to stop a person in order to communicate for the purpose of prostitution or alternatively, communicating or attempting to communicate for the purpose of prostitution will be sufficient to ground a conviction for the offence. This means that both the prostitute and the person seeking the prostitute’s services can be found guilty of this offence.

What if I wasn’t successful in my attempt to obtain a prostitute’s services? It is not necessary to be successful in one’s attempt to communicate for the purpose of prostitution. Merely attempting to communicate with a prostitute is sufficient to be convicted of the offence.

What if I was asking the prostitute how much s/he charged out of curiosity and NOT with the intention to solicit their services as a prostitute? The Crown must prove as a fact that it was the intention of the accused person to solicit services for the purpose of prostitution. The accused must be “serious”. S/he must mean what s/he says and be willing and ready to carry out the transaction.    Simply being curious or joking is permitted under the legislation and is not evidence of the required intention to communicate for the purpose of prostitution….

Must there be a monetary transaction for the offence of communicating for the purpose of prostitution to be completed? No. Money does not have to be tendered for the offence of communicating for the purpose of prostitution to be complete. All that is required is an intention to engage in the sexual act.

It’s a relief that joking about prostitution is permitted, as well as simple curiosity about price ranges. It’s hard to imagine how either capitalism or democratic politics could continue without some legal leeway for the latter.

A lower court struck down all three laws in 2010. The primary rationale was that the provisions increase the dangers sex workers face. The question of personal freedom was not entirely circumvented, but the judge found centrally that “These laws, individually and together, force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” According to the Globe and Mail,

Ontario Superior Court Judge Susan Himel based her decision on a broad conclusion that current laws offer little protection. She pointed at evidence that violence against sex workers is endemic – from serial killings by Vancouver farmer Robert Pickton, to missing prostitutes in Alberta and frequent violence against sex trade workers in the Atlantic region.

“By increasing the risk of harm to street prostitutes, the communicating law is simply too high a price to pay for the alleviation of social nuisance,” Judge Himel said. “I find that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public.”

The case could eventually head to the Supreme Court of Canada. If Himel’s ruling is upheld, however, the protection grounds on which she based it could open the way not for a general liberalization of Canadian laws, but for a shift to targeting only the client, not the sex worker — the so-called “Swedish model.”  The restrictions on sexual autonomy would simply be moved, at least formally, to the consumer.

Canada, that happy if chilly non-colonial and rights-based country, too often gets a free pass for its frequently appalling treatment of sex workers, both by and beyond the law. One reason is that its laws are not globally atypical, however at odds with the country’s professions of respect for freedom. Another, though, is that the disparity between its reputation and its record simply doesn’t register with many “mainstream” human rights activists. After all, Human Rights Watch and other players in the field don’t recognize that sex workers have any right to be sex workers. If the Ontario court hands down a progressive ruling, perhaps it might stimulate both reassessment and remedy for a persistent, wounding blindness among human rights practitioners.