Sex workers challenging Canada's prostitution laws
Published Tuesday, October 6, 2009 8:51PM EDT
The laws that control prostitution in Canada are on trial today in a Toronto courtroom, as two prostitutes and a dominatrix challenge the laws that they say make no sense.
Alan Young, the Osgoode Hall law professor representing the women, says his clients can't understand why prostitution itself is not directly prohibited, and yet all incidental transactions involved in prostitution are.
Young is arguing in Ontario Superior Court that the Criminal Code sections that prohibit "communication for the purpose of prostitution," "living on the avails of prostitution," or "running or occupying a bawdy house" make plying a legal trade legally near to impossible.
"The objective of communication laws is to get prostitutes off the streets, but when you go to move inside, the law that tells you that's a 'bawdy house' that brings more severe legal sanction. When you then go to somebody and say 'Help me and be my driver, make my life more secure,' that becomes a pimping charge called 'living off the avails.' So selling sex is legal but you can't do it in any safe way because the law gives you no safe, legal option. That's the problem," he told CTV News Channel Tuesday afternoon
He says with the way the law stands, prostitutes can't ask the questions need to screen potential clients, can't work in brothels, and can't have anyone protect them. That leaves sex workers vulnerable and forced to work on the streets.
"There are dangers working on the street. (The law) has contributed to the lack of safety and harm women face," he told reporters outside the Toronto courthouse where the case is being heard.
The Crown is expected to argue that decriminalizing prostitution could cause women to view it as "a career choice," make Canada a haven for sex tourism, and perhaps lead to the "red-light districts" across the country.
They also plan to argue that prostitution is inherently degrading, dangerous and unhealthy, and should not be encouraged by lax laws.
"The Charter does not mandate Parliament to design a regime allowing the applicants to earn money by engaging in prostitution with fewer hindrances," federal prosecutor Michael Morris said in a legal brief.
Prostitute Val Scott told reporters Tuesday that current laws ignore the reality on the streets.
"It is legal to sell sex," she said. "Those in opposition have a displaced sense of morality. It is time for Canada to get over it."
Young, too, disagrees with those who argue prostitution is inherently unhealthy and unsafe.
"That's not an empirically sound statement; that's an expression of disgust," he told CTV.
"Obviously, it is safe when conducted indoors; international studies in legalized jurisdictions have shown that. So it's common sense to say it's safer to move indoors," he said.
The three women launching the charter are Lauren Casey, a former prostitute in Victoria, B.C., sex worker Amy Lebovitch, and former dominatrix Terri Jean "Madame deSade" Bedford, whose infamous "bondage bungalow" in Thornhill was raided in 1994.
The three women want the Court to strike down all the Criminal Code sections pertaining to solicitation, to effectively decriminalize prostitution.
They argue that restrictions on their sex work activities are a violation of their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to security of the person and freedom of expression.
While attempts have been made over the years to strike down parts of the prostitution laws, this challenge, which has been two years in the making, is the first in two decades to aim for a broad sweep of all the provisions.
Justice Susan Himel, who is hearing the challenge, will need to assess whether Canada's laws are "proportionate" to their purpose of protecting the public good, or whether they force prostitutes into unsafe situations.
Evidence in the case is expected to consist mostly of affidavits from 56 individuals, including sex workers, police officers, academics and NDP MP Libby Davies, whose Vancouver riding includes the Lower East Side.
The Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada, Christian Legal Fellowship and REAL Women of Canada, have been granted intervenor status in the case and will present their perspective on the issues before the court as well.