Supreme Court(esan) of Canada

Prostitution laws in Canada under evaluation

By Natalie Serafini, Assistant Editor

In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down the Criminal Code’s previous anti-prostitution laws in response to last year’s Canada v. Bedford case. In June of this year, parliament began the process of addressing the key issues raised.

While sex work is legal, the essential issues behind the legislation overhaul are that the Criminal Code punishes those involved in prostitution, without acknowledging the complexity of the industry. As the courts state, the laws do not distinguish “between those who exploit prostitutes and those who could increase the safety and security of prostitutes…”

The laws also prohibit brothels, which can guarantee greater safety through access to bodyguards and screening of clients.

Bill C-36, which is the proposed revision of the current legislation on prostitution, is said to follow the “Nordic” model, wherein the purchase of sex is against the law, but the sale of it is not. Canada is adapting this model by also prohibiting the sale of sex in areas where children might be present.

Response to the proposed legislation has been varied. Proponents advocate punishing those who perpetuate the sex industry (pimps and clients, for example), rather than those in the profession who might need help and not a prison sentence. Those against are composed of both advocates for total legalization and advocates for total criminalization, rather than this split that punishes one half of the transaction.

Tom Flanagan, political activist and previous professor of political science at the University of Calgary, recently wrote an opinions piece for the Globe and Mail on what he called bill C-36’s “bizarre work of moral panic.” In the piece, he describes his support for criminalizing the manifestations of sex work (for example, brothels, solicitation, and living off prostitution) as a form of harm reduction.

Bill C-36 has also been criticized for not addressing the safety of sex workers, as a joint study by UBC and the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative (GSHI) of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS shows that the Vancouver Police Department’s similar policy model does not deter violence against sex workers and in fact further endangers them.

An author of the UBC-GSHI report, Andrea Krüsi, explained in an interview with the Peak that, “In the context where clients are criminalized, it’s still in the shared interests of the client and the sex worker to be undetected by the police and so this led to women having to rush screening their clients.”

The study further reports an inability to negotiate with clients on terms, getting pushed out of safer, more residential or commercial areas, and sex workers being unable to contact police for help.

These issues are relevant in the context of “Trade Secrets for Sex Workers,” a manual produced by the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities that details safety guidelines for sex workers. Among the tips listed are “Make friends with the beat cops in your neighbourhood, if possible. They’ll watch out for you more and take it more seriously if someone assaults you,” and “Look at the customer and check his level of sobriety and emotional state. … Be sure of his mental state before entering the vehicle.”

The federal legislative development was followed by a timely and local showing of the 1984 documentary Hookers on Davie at the Fox Cabaret on June 25. The film details the lives of sex workers on Davie Street, culminating in the Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes staging the first ever protest in Canada for sex workers’ rights: the protest was specifically against the Concerned Residents of the West End which was trying to oust the sex workers from the neighbourhood. Protest signs also called for “Alternatives not laws,” as at the time sex workers were pushing for changes to laws regarding sex work.

As it stands, parliament has until December of this year to draft and pass new legislation. Until then, prosecution regarding sex work and sex workers will proceed case-by-case, evaluated based on public interest. Neil MacKenzie, with the Communications Counsel of the Criminal Justice Branch, states that, “When a review was conducted of open prosecution files following the Bedford decision there were fewer than 30 ongoing cases in British Columbia involving the Criminal Code sections in question. The number of prostitution-related prosecutions in BC is quite limited at present.”