[Although this comment was written just before the Supreme Court’s landmark prostitution decision today, it expresses well why Parliament must reform Canada’s prostitution laws.]
We’re now less than 24 hours before the Supreme Court of Canada is set to release its ruling in the Bedford prostitution case Friday morning. Those who have been involved in the case know well what is at stake. But I remain concerned that much of society has yet to look honestly and critically at the real issues of prostitution in Canada.
The Bedford case is a challenge to three of the key laws that inhibit prostitution in Canada, which would otherwise be completely legal. One of the laws whose fate we await is the Criminal Code provision that makes it a criminal offence to live on the avails of prostitution, or the pimping law.
This provision was struck down at the Ontario Superior Court, then rewritten at the Ontario Court of Appeal so that it would “only apply in circumstances of exploitation.” It has been argued before the Supreme Court and in the media by pro-prostitution groups that this provision prevents women in prostitution from hiring bodyguards, drivers or even bookkeepers, thereby making their ‘work’ less safe.
It’s a charming chapter in a fairy tale version of prostitution, in which the men involved in the prostitution industry are benevolent fellows whose interests lie in assisting and protecting prostituted women. But the thing about fairy tales is when you look a little deeper you often find something darker and more ominous.
‘Attention all bitches…’
Through the network of individuals and organizations I work alongside to bring change to Canada’s prostitution laws, I was alerted to a mass text communication that had been issued by several well known pimps in southwestern Ontario.
The text begins, “Attention All Bad Bitches/Working Girls/Escorts/Strippers… Exile Season Starts December 15!”
The exile season warning is directed at all women known to be prostituting in the Greater Toronto Area, and possibly even more widespread, whether on the streets, in massage parlours, escort services or in strip clubs. Intended to intimidate and threaten, it is a less than subtle directive that failure to ‘choose’ a pimp to work with on a ‘100 percent basis’ would result in those women no longer being permitted to work, period.
The text makes it clear that enforcers – whose nicknames aren’t fit for print – are ready and willing to deal with non-compliers. The message is unambiguous: working independently, anywhere, will not be tolerated; and those who don’t play by the rules will face consequences.
I was sickened by what I read. I’m told this type of communication is just part of ‘the game,’ and must be taken seriously. These men are not drivers or bodyguards. They are dangerous individuals, exercising a perverse sense of power and entitlement, and bent on maintaining control.
A decade of experience with legalization in countries like the Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand tells us that legalization does not wrestle this power from the hands of these men. Rather, it creates a more competitive environment for them, encouraging them to up the ante. Women, as this communication detailed, are forced to either leave the game or respect its origin, as the text says, “built and designed for gentlemen to eat.” Gentlemen, indeed.
Criminalize the purchase of sex
This is just part of what’s at stake in Friday’s decision. And it’s why, regardless of how the Supreme Court of Canada rules, it is essential that Parliament reform our prostitution laws
Last week the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) submitted Out of Business: Prostitution in Canada – Putting an end to Demand to the Prime Minister and the Ministers of Justice and Public Safety before sending it to all parliamentarians.
It is a comprehensive report outlining the model of law and public policy on prostitution that we, along with other faith, feminist, women’s and First Nations organizations and a growing number of police associations, believe to be the most effective, most just approach to addressing prostitution.
Ultimately, our goal is the elimination of all forms of sexual exploitation in Canada. This Canadian proposal, based on the approach pioneered in Sweden, recognizes prostitution as violence toward women, exploitation and contrary to equality between the sexes.
It proposes criminalizing the purchase and attempt to purchase sex for the first time in our country, while decriminalizing the people who are being sold for someone else’s pleasure. And it suggests a Canadian way of providing supports and services to facilitate exit from prostitution.
In studies of women in prostitution, 90 percent have expressed they would get out of prostitution if they could. If prostituted women weren’t worried about facing charges, vile communications like the one I describe could be reported to the police, and the police would take action.
In Ottawa, the Supreme Court and Parliament stand in each other’s shadows. Let’s hope both will take the steps necessary to put an end to this modern day sex slavery. [The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down all three provisions of Canada’s prostitution laws led the EFC to ‘urge government to act.’]
Julia Beazley is Policy Analyst, Canadian and International Poverty, with Activate CFPL, which is the law and public policy blog (where this comment first appeared) of the EFC’s Centre for Faith and Public Life. She has been with the EFC since 1999, and works on issues of domestic and global poverty, homelessness and human trafficking. She also serves as the Chair of Advocacy for StreetLevel: The National Roundtable on Poverty & Homelessness.