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article imageShould Prostitution Be Decriminalized?

By David Silverberg     May 9, 2007 in Lifestyle
The world’s oldest profession has long been under attack by politics, moralists and abusive clients. Digital Journal investigates the unspoken truth behind three women’s court challenge to reform the laws of selling sex for a living.
Digital Journal — We’ve all seen them on the seamy side of town: gaudily dressed, too much make-up, leg cocked to catch a driver’s attention. They come out in the shadows and they retreat when daylight breaks. As much as we tend to forget about them, they are still workers. They are still fighting to pay rent. And recently, the bravest among them are clamouring for change — they don’t want to live in the shadows any longer.
In light of an announcement that several Canadian women will challenge federal prostitution laws, the question must be asked: Should sex professionals finally be accepted as respectable members of society, as outlined by the government?
Last month, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch of the Sex Professionals of Canada and former dominatrix Terri Jean Bedford announced they will challenge the current provisions in the Criminal Code dealing with “bawdy houses, living off the avails of prostitution and communicating for the purpose of prostitution,” according to a Macleans article.
Prostitution is not illegal in Canada — only the activities associated. This profession lives in murky legal waters where some practices are allowed and others are not.
In an interview with Digital Journal, Scott says her team hopes to prove “these laws are arbitrary, and they do more harm that good to prostitutes.” The first hearing will take place on May 31 in front of a Supreme Court justice. This is no small potatoes.
One of the issues Scott is contesting is the communication laws. The Code doesn’t allow prostitutes to talk to clients — or johns — openly, pushing that initial interaction to dark alleyways. In the past, before the law was enacted, Scott says fellow sex workers would go out in groups, writing down the license plate of cars that picked up their colleagues. Now, no one but the working prostitute can see the guy or the car. “These communication laws directly result in beatings, rapes and murders of sex workers in Canada,” says Scott, a former sex worker who strutted the streets for 10 years.
From left to right: Former dominatrix Terri Jean Bedford; Valerie Scott, a former sex worker and current Executive Director of Sex Professionals of Canada; and Amy Lebovitch, a SPOC spokesperson. They are challenging three provisions of the Criminal Code in an effort to decriminalize prostitution in Canada.
Alan Young, a lawyer working with Scott on the case, recently noted that approximately 120 Canadian sex trade workers were killed in the course of their employment between 1991 and 2005. The Robert Pickton trial aside, Young says barely any attention is paid to this crisis. “Due to the legal marginalization and stigmatizing of sex work, this violence is simply ignored or routinely addressed with utter indifference by public officials,” he wrote.
Scott and her friends are also challenging the Criminal Code section prohibiting sex workers to live off the avails of their earnings. “If I serve you lunch,” Scott tells me, “and some of those ingredients in the sandwich were bought with money I made as a prostitute, then the law states you’re my pimp.”

To Decrim or to Legalize

Scott doesn’t want prostitution to be legalized. “Look at Amsterdam,” she points out. “Women are hustled in a red-light district where they have to register at a police station after paying thousands of dollars annually in licensing fees. They don’t have the right to refusal, meaning they have to do any sex act the client wants. That’s sexual assault.”
Decriminalization, on the other, views prostitution as a legit business. In New South Wales, Australia, one of the few places to decriminalize prostitution, sex workers can work freely without the threat of police charges or the state seizing their assets.
“But then everyday people start to think ‘Oh no, I don’t want to live next to a brothel,’” Scott says. “Well, guess what, after running one for many years I can tell you that there’s a brothel in every neighbourhood, on every city block. There aren’t drunk naked women hanging out of windows. Sex workers are very discreet.”
Although addressing the U.S. prostitution situation, journalist Cathy Young makes a good case to change the legal stance on this marginalized profession. “As with other victimless crimes, the criminalization of prostitution creates a vast breeding ground for corruption, hypocrisy, and morally dubious law enforcement tactics,” she wrote.
For all the logic to strike down morality-based laws concerning prostitution, Canada’s Conservative government isn’t set to decriminalize the world’s oldest profession just yet. Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said in a report recently: “This government condemns any conduct that results in exploitation or abuse and, accordingly, does not support any reforms, such as decriminalization, that would facilitate such exploitation.”
Undoubtedly, some pimps prey on homeless women or illegal immigrants with no means to support themselves. Not every sex worker is happy to be strolling the block. Exploitation may occur, but is it the exception or the norm? What we’re often exposed to through newspaper inches and TV sound bytes is the ugly side of prostitution. If there was a sunny story about hookers, would CBC News broadcast it?

Unseen and Unsafe — Is That How Sex Workers Should Live?

Facing social stigma daily, prostitution is a job where it’s always an uphill climb. The public is well-versed in “lady of the night” stereotypes, police harass women simply trying to support their families and the sex workers themselves aren’t protected in their own workplace. It’s as if governments have neglected a profession that is deemed legal, but to live off it is not.
Young said it best when he wrote how we should start “to construct a legal regime that respects the safety and security of anyone who freely chooses to earn a living through the sale of sexual services.” I second the motion. It’s only through public ignorance that there hasn’t been a war cry to change laws both harmful and idiotic. Adding insult to injury is the government stance that every sex worker has been exploited and is coerced into the profession. I guess those politicos haven’t talked to Valerie Scott.
When I ask Scott if she thinks her court challenge has a good chance of winning, she’s hesitant to answer. After a brief pause, she says, “It’s so difficult to predict. I predict the Crown attorneys will bring in human-trafficking experts to obfuscate the case as much as possible. That’s a big obstacle we have to hurdle.”
No matter the outcome, what those three women are doing is courageous enough: bringing attention to an oft-overlooked workplace safety issue, and finally letting the world see sex workers as regular human beings.
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