A closer look at decriminalizing prostitution

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Women's legs, wearing high heels on a street at night

Laura Barclay

GAINING SOCIETAL ACCEPTANCE. In an effort to improve working conditions and break the negative stigmas associated with sex workers, organizations such as the Sex Professionals of Canada are advocating for prostitution to be decriminalized in Canada.

“We need to be a lot less uptight about sex and realize there are problems occurring in Canada.”

The sentiment expressed by Western philosophy professor Samantha Brennan reflects the feelings of those who favour decriminalizing prostitution in Canada.

Today, Amy Lebovitch " a sex worker and the interim executive director of Sex Professionals of Canada " will be at Western giving a presentation outlining the different types of sex work and explaining how the Criminal Code in Canada currently affects prostitution.

Lebovitch is an advocate for decriminalizing sex workers in Canada.

“Decriminalization positively views sex work as a legitimate independent business and puts control of the industry in the sex workers’ hands,” she said.

On Oct. 5, 2009 a major case involving Lebovitch will commence at the Superior Court of Ontario. She is one of three plaintiffs in the case against the Attorney General of Canada; they are challenging three sections of the Criminal Code related to prostitution.

“This does not have much impact on the legal system; the implications are more political and social,” Alan Young, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and Lebovitch’s lawyer in the case, stated.

“Prohibitionists argue that when it is decriminalized, the country will be flooded by individuals wanting to join the sex trade. I do not see this Pandora’s box scenario as a possibility.”

Advocates of decriminalizing the sex work industry argue it will reduce the stigma towards the profession.

“Some feminists argue that sex workers are not ‘bad women,’ but they are victims,” said Barb MacQuarrie, community director for the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children at Western.

“Sex workers are more at risk of being abused than women not involved in sex work because as a society we view them as ‘less than,’” she added.

According to MacQuarrie, Lebovitch and Brennan, decriminalizing prostitution will increase the safety of sex workers as they could centralize their work through businesses and co-ops by working together.

“The majority of clients are really great " they are not all abusers who attack women,” Lebovitch explained. “However, there are those who want to have sex without a condom; this instigates a discussion which should not occur.”

Conversely, other groups " such as Streetlight Support Services in Toronto " assert the decriminalization of prostitution would have negative consequences for workers.

“The philosophy of Streetlight has been that the sex trade industry globally displays the same patterns of ritual abuse and violence,” Inas Garwood, executive director of Streetlight, stated.

“The decriminalization of prostitution could lead to a higher risk of abuse in women and children.”

However, MacQuarrie explained, “Women who fear criminal consequences for revealing their occupation are less likely to seek medical assistance or to turn to the police for help if crimes such as robbery, assault or sexual assault are committed against them.”

Health concerns are another reason why Lebovitch and the SPOC advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution, rather than legalization.

According to Lebovitch, sex workers in countries where prostitution has been legalized are required to undergo mandatory health checks while their clients do not have the same requirement. She stated this paternalistic approach violates the rights of sex workers.

Conversely, Garwood stated, “If prostitution were decriminalized, addictions and mental health costs to our health care system would be enormous. I am not only talking about physical [health], but also mental and psychological health. A lot of my clients have disclosed their need for drugs or alcohol before going to work [in the sex trade].

“The risk of contracting [sexually transmitted infections] exists whether prostitution is decriminalized or not, but if it is, more people would be exposed to the risk,” she added.

From 2005 to 2008, the London Police Service investigated 309 prostitution cases.

“Prostitution is a continuing problem in London, just as in other cities in Ontario,” Amy Phillipo, a representative of the London Police Service, stated.

While Phillipo acknowledged decriminalizing prostitution may decrease criminal cases related to the profession, she said other issues may arise.

“Cases may decrease relating to prostitution, but there may be an increase in other crimes such as drug problems in neighbourhoods,” she added.

Garwood claimed there are alternatives to decriminalizing prostitution, advocating for expanding public outreach and public education programs, as well as diversion programs within the community rather than changing the Criminal Code.

In contrast, Brennan explained, “Sex for sale is not illegal in Canada. What is illegal is soliciting and keeping a house within which prostitution occurs. We have targeted activities people perceive as a nuisance as being illegal.”

“When a ‘bawdy house’ is discovered, its assets and property can be seized. Currently, when sex workers work in cooperation in the business, they can be charged,” Lebovitch added.

Overall, Young, Lebovitch, MacQuarrie and Brennan agreed decriminalizing prostitution would benefit sex workers by safeguarding against abuse, health concerns and allowing legal protection.

“We tend to want strip clubs and other such places on the outskirts of town and therefore, in some ways, we need to become adults about sexuality,” Brennan asserted.

“We cannot pretend that these issues don’t exist because they will not go away if ignored.”

Amy Lebovitch’s presentation entitled “Decriminalizing Prostitution: Sex Work and the Law in Canada” takes place today in University College, Rm. 224A at 12:30 p.m.

Bedford, Lebovitch, Scott v. Attorney General of Canada.
Commencing on Oct. 5, 2009 at the Superior Court of Ontario

The following provisions of The Criminal Code of Canada are being challenged:

Bawdy-Houses: 210. (1) Every one who keeps a common bawdy-house is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.

Procuring: 212. (1) (j) lives wholly or in part on the avails of prostitution of another person...is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

Offence In Relation To Prostitution: 213. (1) Every person who in a public place or in any place open to public view for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or of obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.

Source: Department of Justice Canada website

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