On Tuesday I will make submissions to the House of Commons Justice Committee on Canada’s new prostitution laws, which passed second reading several weeks ago, and will surely become the law of the land, perhaps with some amendments.
As many of you know, I was counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada in Attorney General v. Bedford and one of the few voices in the Supreme Court of Canada that urged that prostitution not be legalized.
Of course, we all know that the law criminalizing activities related to prostitution was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada last December, thus opening the door for our federal government to create new law, taking into account the necessity for it to pass constitutional muster.
The new law does just that. It decriminalizes prostitution for the women and girls that trade in sexual services, but makes it illegal to purchase sex in Canada, thus targeting customers (johns) and those who seek to exploit (pimps) the mostly female, often aboriginal victims of the sex trade. It permits the selling of sexual services so long as it is not conducted in the vicinity of children 18 or under. It also forbids the advertisement of sexual services.
The basis of my objections to the legalization of prostitution is founded on one of Canada’s underlying principles, that respect for the human dignity of each person is foundational to our society, a dignity whose inherent value was confirmed by our highest court in the Rodriguez case (euthanasia) and finds expression in the 1949 United Nations Protocol on the trafficking of humans, a convention signed by Canada which provides:
“Prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purpose of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of a person and endanger the welfare of the individual, the family and the community.”
The view that prostitution subordinates and victimizes women and girls is not particularly popular, but I have seen it first hand when I lived on Granville Street in the early 1970’s and in Vancouver’s west end in the 80’s. The image of a “happy hooker” is a Madison Avenue gimmick that has no basis in reality.
When my husband, Doug, ran the Vancouver Vice Squad, I saw again the squalor and exploitation of young, addicted woman, both tragic and poignant.
To those who say that legalization is the only answer, one only has to look at those countries who have based their social policy on sex work as a legitimate job with benefits paid and tax collected.
Perhaps the best example that the harms inherent in prostitution are not alleviated by legalization is the State of Victoria in Australia where prostitution was legalized in the 1990’s.
It was said that legalizing sex work would assist in eradicating the criminal element, guard against unregulated expansion, and combat violence against prostitutes.
How wrong they were…violence was not eliminated, street prostitution was not curtailed as they naively expected, working conditions were no safer than before, prostitution escalated and turning sex work into a legitimate business opportunity for women and girls did not dignify or professionalize prostitutes.
Instead there occurred massive expansion, particularly in the illegal sector with unlicensed brothels. Women were not empowered to become self- sufficient entrepreneurs, as they could not compete with the businessmen who took over the brothel business. Street prostitution was not eliminated as street workers had a host of social problems including addictions, mental illness, and an inability to be hired by legal brothels because of their lifestyles.
Canada’s new prostitution bill addresses many of the safety concerns identified by the Supreme Court of Canada, but more than that, the tenor of the law does not accede to the notion that prostitution is acceptable and legitimate in a free and democratic society.
In my view, prostitution not only harms the women and girls involved but also undermines the social fabric of Canada. It is too easy not to try to provide a way out for our mothers, sisters and aunts who are trapped in this degrading practice. It is a basic issue of human rights.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang