Illustration by Brett Lamb/Torontoist.
Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.
When we call prostitution the “world’s oldest profession,” surely we’re being facetious. Dentistry is a profession. Teaching is a profession. Prostitution is a crime, right? Well, sort of. In fact, prostitution itself has been decriminalized in Canada since the ’70s, but there’s a catch. Almost any activity associated with prostitution is illegal: communicating to solicit clients, living off the avails, keeping a “bawdy house” (a term that perhaps gives away the vintage of these laws—it sounds like it was coined by the Wife of Bath). In case you haven’t noticed, this has all been entirely ineffective at stopping prostitution from existing. Forget about “profession,” and focus on the “world’s oldest” part. As in, “has existed in some capacity in just about every society everywhere ever.” And that includes penguin society!
Like it or not, hooking is here to stay, which means you have to ask what these laws actually do. Well, simple: they force an already marginalized and victimized group into dangerous, illegal situations on a constant basis. The “bawdy house” provision makes a working from home approach problematic, the “living off the avails” part means hiring any security is also a no-no, and the “communication” bit means a “client screening process” is often jumping into a car before a cop sees you. Worst of all, a sex worker fearing for her (or his) safety cannot dial 911 without risking incarceration themselves.
On Tuesday, September 28, things started to change. Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott, and Amy Lebovitch made a huge leap forward for sex workers’ rights in the province of Ontario. In a surprise decision, Justice Susan Himel declared all three aforementioned laws unconstitutional in the Ontario Supreme Court, right here in Toronto. Obviously, the decision was controversial. Reactionaries like conservative lobby group REAL Women of Canada (who are about as anti-feminist, anti-choice, homophobic, and transphobic as an organization that nominally supports women’s rights can possibly get) warn that decriminalization will lead to a tidal wave of streetwalking, human trafficking, and abuse, conveniently ignoring that it’s our current laws that force prostitutes onto the streets and make their jobs so unsafe. Squeamishness has no place interfering in such important jurisprudence. If you don’t think prostitution is “nice,” try not becoming a prostitute. Otherwise, what consenting adults choose to do with their bodies and their money is none of your business.
We haven’t reached the end of this story yet. Ontario’s Court of Appeals put a stay in place, meaning that these unconstitutional laws will still be enforced until April 29, 2011, giving the government ample time to react. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, of course, has already declared prostitution “bad for society.” And it may be a long time yet before the sex workers of Ontario are able to realize their dreams of forming trade guilds, and filing income tax (yes, this is actually a dream for some). You know, like professionals. But Bedford, Scott, Lebovitch, and Himel all put their necks on the line to strike down the kind of laws that allowed Robert Pickton to murder dozens of women for fourteen years before being arrested. And we think that’s fucking heroic.