"Emancipation Day" for Sex Workers
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“Emancipation Day” for Sex Workers

Ontario's Court of Appeal rules against laws preventing bawdy houses and living off money earned from sex work.

Lawyer Alan Young, clients Terri-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott, activist Nikki Thomas, and lawyer Ron Marzel.

Ontario’s top court ruled today in favour of the legalization of brothels and living off the avails of prostitution.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel ruled in September 2010 that existing prostitution laws were unjust and endangered the lives of sex-trade workers. The government appealed, arguing that the existing laws are necessary to protect sex workers.

Prostitution is not actually illegal in Canada, though many activities relating to it are, including soliciting, operating a brothel, and living on the avails of the trade. Today, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that these laws prevent sex workers from properly protecting themselves. This decision means that said workers will be able to hire bodyguards and other staff, and to work indoors in legal brothels, although street prostitution (or, more specifically, communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution) and exploitation by pimps are still illegal. The decision does not take effect for a year, giving the government time to amend the Criminal Code.

The atmosphere was celebratory at a downtown press conference featuring Terri-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott, both former sex workers, and Toronto lawyer Alan Young—all involved in a constitutional challenge of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws. Bedford called it “emancipation day” for sex workers.

Young expressed surprise at the court’s ruling, and relief that sex workers would no longer feel that they are second-class citizens who have to do without the health and safety provisions from which other Canadians benefit.

He stressed that the decision will have little impact on the status quo, as the current enforcement rate for bawdy houses and living off avails is low, and that at least 80 per cent of sex workers are indoors already (see page 128 of the ruling [PDF]). “The reality is, Canadian society will not collapse or even flinch under the weight of this decision,” said Young. “The reality is that we’ve never cared much about these laws.… We’re not going to see a dramatic change in the way the sex trade operates in Canada. It’s still going to be fairly discreet and not in people’s faces.”

Client Valerie Scott was more succinct: “We’re not going to have fire and brimstone and hookers raining down from the sky.”

Nikki Thomas, executive director of Sex Professionals of Canada, conceded that public opinion might be tougher to change. “We must convince people that sex workers are not to be feared, not to be considered worthless, and not to be looked at as less than human,” she said.

The press conference then dissolved into debate, with one woman in attendance loudly telling cameras that the ruling was “disgusting” and that she regularly encountered 14- and 15-year-old girls who were forced into the business, or felt they had no other choice but to take up sex work. Riley, a 27-year-old sex worker who has been in the trade for 10 years, quietly expressed anger over those words. She supports the court’s decision as she feels the loosening of anti-prostitution laws will make it easier for sex workers to make safer and more informed choices about where and how they work. “We’re now able to work in our own conditions and not feel threatened by the government,” she told us.

Young’s team is still considering whether they will fight to have the remaining intact provision, solicitation, knocked down. The provincial and/or federal governments are expected to file an appeal of today’s ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Photo by Bronwyn Kienapple.


CORRECTION: MAY 18, 6:08 PM This article original attributed remarks to Natasha Falle which we have recently been told may have been made by another individual. We have removed the attribution while we resolve the matter.

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