Prostitution comes out of the dark

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New laws make the most vulnerable of us safer

Ali Churchill
The Gateway (University of Alberta)

EDMONTON (CUP) — “Selling is legal. Fucking is legal. So why is selling fucking illegal?” George Carlin once asked.

Carlin would have appreciated recent news out of Ontario. On Sept. 28, Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel struck down three Criminal Code provisions relating to prostitution.

The case, launched by Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch, and represented by lawyer Alan Young, overturned three of Canada’s prostitution laws. In the province of Ontario, prostitutes will soon be allowed to operate a common bawdy house, live off the profits of prostitution and solicit for purposes of prostitution.

Prostitutes will have the opportunity to sell their services in a safe and controlled environment, where they can employ people to ensure their safety and even call the police for help without fear of legal prosecution. Although prostitution itself wasn’t technically illegal, pretty much every action surrounding it was, and as such, violence against those involved in the sex industry was rampant.

Those participating in the industry had to function outside the law, without basic protection to ensure their safety.

Bedford, Scott, and Lebovitch, who have all worked in the sex trade, are qualified to talk about the state of the industry in the years leading up to Himel’s decision. They haven’t painted the rosiest of pictures. Young gave the courts an overview of what he called “shocking and horrifying” stories of abuse suffered by prostitutes as a result of the industry being pushed underground. Even though these dangers still exist, by decriminalizing prostitution, the Ontario courts have given prostitutes a chance to create an industry where they can ensure their own safety.

Of course, no sane thought goes unpunished. There are those taking advantage of the 30-day window in which to overturn the court’s decision. The Conservative government squirmed as their tight pants got even tighter when Himel released her decision, complaining that the change will make prostitution even easier.

Well, yes, and that’s really the point. It’s about improving the lives of prostitutes and giving them a chance to work in a safe environment, rather than treating them as criminals.

Foremost amongst the dissenters is Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien, whose problem with Judge Himel’s decision centres on his belief that the move will only facilitate pimping and increase drug dependency. It seems he has missed the point.

Preventing continued drug abuse would be best combated with increased social and educational programs, not by shaming and charging those who work in the sex-trade industry.

As for pimps, if the industry is regulated but not criminalized, there is a greater possibility that prostitutes will be able to form unions in which they are able to set their own standards of safe employment. By driving the sex industry further into the margins of society, prostitutes are regularly forced to go without the basic personal safety considerations they should enjoy.

Looking at the Robert Pickton murders further highlights the potential improvements in the industry resulting from this ruling. An internal report released by the Vancouver police in August details the RCMP’s failures, listing the variety of ways in which the disappearances of prostitutes from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside went ignored from the 1990s onward.

It stands to reason that had lines of communication between sex workers in the area and police been more open, there would have been greater information pointing to Pickton’s involvement, which could have potentially saved lives.

The point to be made is that simply making prostitution illegal won’t deter people from buying and selling sex. If the federal Conservatives were really willing to help those victimized by the sex trade, they could do so by funding better drug counseling, job training and education.

Like other controversial decisions that have sprung up from the east and spread across Canada, if Judge Himel’s decision stands, there is a good chance that it may be reproduced in other provinces.

And, just as in 2003 when Ontario was the first province to legalize gay marriage, we can expect others to follow soon, or be dragged kicking and screaming into the new age. Judge Himel’s decision won’t eradicate violence from prostitution, but at the very least, it will give the people involved a fighting chance to have sex on their own terms.

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