Hot Topics: Ontario court strikes down prostitution laws

Margot Francis

Margot Francis

Canada’s current laws make the lives of female sex workers disproportionately more dangerous, but a recent Ontario court ruling paves the way to alleviate some of that, says Margot Francis, assistant professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Brock.

Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice recently ruled that the Criminal Code provisions relating to prostitution contribute to the danger faced by sex-trade workers.

The constitutional challenge was initiated by a group of sex worker activists who were arguing that current laws in Ontario constitute a form of gender-based discrimination.

The ruling furthers equal rights, Francis said. “More women than men work as sex workers — so they are disproportionately affected by the current legislation.”

Francis discussed the issue with The Brock News.

What is the problem with the current legislation?

Under the current law sex work is legal, but ‘communicating’ for the purposes of prostitution is not. The police focus most of their enforcement on women (and some men) who work on the street — often in order to placate property owners.

More than 80 per cent of charges related to sex work are laid against street sex workers even though the majority of sex work actually happens indoors through out-call services, or at massage parlors and exotic dancing establishments.

So the women who are most vulnerable to male violence are also subject to the most intense police surveillance. This means they would be unlikely to look to police for help if they were in trouble, which intensifies their vulnerability.

If police were not spending their time trying to arrest sex workers, they would actually have some time to protect them. The more sex workers are seen as worthy of police protection the less vulnerable they will be.

Conversely, the fact that sex workers are seen as ‘deserving’ whatever violence they get means that some men feel emboldened to violence.

What is the impact of the Court’s ruling with respect to equal rights?

The potential impact is huge. Most sex worker organizations internationally lobby for decriminalization so that they can operate as businesses. The crucial issue here is that they want some say in the conditions under which they work, like other workers.

If they have access to that control, then they can ensure that the physical conditions of their labour are safe and healthy. This will also allow them to contribute taxes and organize benefits like worker compensation schemes.

Decriminalization, then, means that sex workers become part of the community.

Ironically this would also mean that it would be easier for women to leave sex work if and when they wanted to because they would be less likely to have a criminal record, or be stigmatized by their past.

What does this mean for sex workers in Canada and legitimizing the work that they do?

Sex workers nationally and internationally and are looking to find the best models for decriminalization.

The more the state can look to them as ‘experts’ about what kinds of working conditions and legal frameworks would ensure their safety and security as workers, the more we are likely to be able to find something that would work here in Canada.

Links:

Margot Francis faculty profile — youtube.com
Sex Professionals of Canada
CBC News - Canada’s prostitution laws: Did a judge make the right call?
The Mark - Who decides if sex work is legal?
St. Catharines Standard – Street prostitutes not helped by court ruling: Advocate

AM 610 CKTB “Niagara at Noon”
Sept. 29 interview with Prof. Francis — mp3


“Hot Topics” is a segment where Brock experts comment on current events in their areas of expertise. To suggest a Hot Topics item, contact campusnews@brocku.ca

Posted on October 6, 2010

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