Advocates, lawmakers react to Supreme Court's prostitution ruling
Published Friday, December 20, 2013 6:11PM EST
Last Updated Friday, December 20, 2013 8:15PM EST
The Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark decision to strike down three major provisions in the country’s prostitution laws has sparked debate amongst sex workers, advocates and lawmakers on how to move forward.
In a 9-0 ruling handed down Friday, the Supreme Court found that Canadian laws prohibiting the keeping of a brothel, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution, infringed on the rights of sex workers and placed them in serious danger.
Minister of Canadian Heritage Shelly Glover told reporters in Winnipeg that the Harper government will take swift action to review the court’s decision and propose stricter laws aimed at protecting vulnerable sex workers.
“The government is saying today we are going to review the decision and we’re going to come up with some options to ensure that the criminal law continues to fight against harm against our communities because of prostitution. Harm against the women and the children who are exploited, harm against those who witness these atrocities. I hope that we can get it done as quickly as possible,” she said.
Glover, who is also a police officer for the Winnipeg Police Service, said she has witnessed first-hand the devastating effects that prostitution can have on communities and said that many of the laws that were struck-down by the Supreme Court today actually served to help police officials and authorities reach out and save the lives of many sex workers on the ground.
“I’ve seen the plight of women being victimized, abused and mistreated and I saw it when I was undercover working to unravel abusive and exploitative prostitution rings,” she said.
“How on earth are we going to find those women who are being exploited? That’s my biggest concern.”
“I worry about them and I look forward to our government providing some options to continue to protect them,” Glover added.
Many others, like Diane Watts from Real Women of Canada, have also voiced concerns over the latest rulings, arguing that the laws established by the Supreme Court were meant to protect women and Canadian communities from the dangers of the sex industry.
“Nobody wants this type of business down the hall from their expensive condominium and these businesses are very lucrative and that’s where they are going to move, so it requires some protection of our properties. Also, people don’t want bungalows with S&M businesses going on where their children wait for the school bus, so there is going to have to be some protection for families,” Watt’s told CTV News Channel.
Watts says she is hoping the Canadian government will step in and create firm anti-prostitution laws that will protect women in the sex-trafficking industry and the communities in which they live.
“The Conservative government will have to provide us with legislation to protect women from trafficking and to protect our neighbourhoods, our properties and our children from being influenced into this type of business,” she said.
While the complete legalization of prostitution seems unlikely in Canada, Watts argued that many countries in Europe who have moved to legalize prostitution have been forced to reverse those decisions in recent years due to increased crime.
Meanwhile, supporters of the ruling say the Supreme Court’s decision is a significant and effective move towards creating safer working conditions for prostitutes.
Katrina Pacey, a litigator in the case, welcomed the court’s decision and said the judgement will have direct effects on the lives of sex workers on the streets.
“The decision means that sex workers will have greater control over the conditions of their work, be able to reduce the violence and discrimination and stigma that they experience and move towards really decreasing the violence that we know has really plagued the sex industry,” she said.
“What sex workers are asking for is the ability for them to regain control over the conditions of their works so that they can make decisions that are best for them, for some women that’s transitioning out of sex work and for others that’s remaining in the industry,” Pacey noted.
Pacey said the original Supreme Court laws put prostitutes in serious danger, often driving them deeper into the sex trade and preventing them from going to authorities to seek help. She said the re-examination of court provisions will hopefully shift the focus of prostitution laws in this country.
“What the court did today was look at the case in a very different way than they did 20 years ago. It was a question of liberty at that point and today it was a question of security, it was a question of safety, it was a question of keeping women alive. The court says very clearly that if these laws prevent sex workers from being able to take steps like screening clients, if these laws prevent sex workers from stopping getting into a vehicle with someone like Robert Pickton, then they must be struck down.”
Janine Benedet, law professor at UBC and legal counsel for the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, told CTV News Channel that while she is happy with today’s decision, she feels that Canadian lawmakers still have a long way to go when it comes to addressing the roots of prostitution and the driving factors behind it.
“The Supreme Court said that part of the reason why these laws were unconstitutional is that the government’s objectives in passing them in the first place weren’t very strong and weren’t very clear, that they were really about nuisance, public health issues, disorder, but that they didn’t go to core concerns of dignity, of equality,” she said.
Benedet said Canada should work to adopt prostitution laws that are more in line with countries like Sweden and Norway, who have adopted a “Nordic Model” of law that shifts the focus of criminalization from sex workers and victims to the sellers and buyers of prostitution.
“We’re asking the government to follow the lead of countries like Sweden and most recently France in saying that it’s really not about where prostitution takes place, moving women around from the streets to trick pads indoors and pimping them in different places, really isn’t the issue here. The issue is the purchase of sex and so we need to criminalize the purchase of sex, we need to criminalize pimping and procuring and we need to provide women with real alternatives to prostitution, it cannot become a social safety net for poor women and Aboriginal women.”
“What I think is really important is that whatever new laws are put in place, that it’s made quite clear that nowadays we understand that prostitution is fundamentally a practice of inequality, that it’s a violation of equality rights of women,” Benedet added.