Informal Feminism

{February 13, 2011}   A Hopeful Step for Canada’s Prostitution Laws

 I set out this week with the intention to inform my readership about a group called REAL Women of Canada; a conservative group which holds views directly opposing my own. However, when I was doing my research into their organization so that I could provide a comprehensive discussion of REAL Women I came across something that interests me far more: Prostitution. Did you know that in Canada that act prostitution is not illegal? But, it is illegal to run a bawdy house, live of the avails of prostitution and communicate about prostitution in a public space. These laws, while not specifically criminalizing the act of prostitution, make it pretty damn hard to be a sex worker in Canada. These laws are currently being challenged after Judge Susan Himmel ruled to get rid of them in September 2010. Being a sex worker in Canada should not deny you the right to a safe and legal workspace, with these laws in place sex workers are being subjected to a myriad of different issues including violence, health issues and stigmatization.

            In 2006 a report was published by the Canadian Committee for Justice and Human rights entitled The Challenge of Change: a Study of Canada’s Criminal Prostitution Laws. This report covered the subject of Canadian prostitution in-depth and made sure to present the views of both sides of the prostitution debate. Upon a brief reading of this document the problems facing sex workers in Canada became quite clear. The report tried to give the best overview of prostitution that it could, but was unable to provide proper statistics because of the underground nature of prostitution. It was estimated that street prostitution only accounted for 5-20% of all prostitution. Street prostitution is the most visible form of prostitution and the one that is generally targeted by anti-prostitution groups, which include REAL women. That means that 80% or more of prostitutes operate off the streets, in establishments like massage parlours or escort services. Many times when prostitution is discussed it is linked to drugs, the two are portrayed as going hand in hand. What the report uncovered was that drug problems seemed to surface more in street prostitution then in other avenues of prostitution because many of the establishments that sex workers work out of frown upon drug and alcohol use by their sex workers.

            Another issue raised in this report was choice, often when prostitution is discussed the issue of choice is raised are these women forced into the act of prostitution? Many see these women as victims; they take away the voice of the sex workers by doing this. As victims they are portrayed as unable to comprehend their situation and made into childlike figures. Prostitution is not the first choice of many of the women in the field; however it is still the choice of many of the women involved in the trade. In the report there were hundreds of women interviewed who worked in the sex trade, most of these women reported that they had chosen to enter the sex trade because of they saw more advantages then disadvantages. They were able to have more flexible hours and make more money then they could make working two minimum wage jobs. Many of the women were lacking the education they would need to work in a more lucrative field and had obstacles preventing them from gaining a better position such as higher education and experience. Some of the women involved were graduates of university or had given up jobs in a more lucrative field to work in the sex trade because they saw the same advantages as the women without education.

            This does not negate the violence and exploitation that these women face as part of the sex trade. The final thing this report made very clear to me was that these women are facing violence every day. They are abused both verbally and physically by pimps, clients, and police. They are looked down upon by a large part of the population and are open to violence and discrimination because of this. Being a sex worker means that you face stigmatization. This is true regardless of whether you are a street worker or you work in an establishment. These women are verbally harassed on the street and face the threat of physical violence regularly. There is a high murder rate for sex workers, one that can not be pinpointed correctly because of the underground nature of the sex trade. Many of the women go missing and are never found and many murders get classified in different ways that make the link between death and prostitution unclear in the police reports. These women face violence not only at the hands of their clients but also at the hands of the police. The police have been known to verbally assault sex workers, as well as deny their claims of violence at the hands of others. Many of the assaults on sex workers go unreported because the women are afraid to go to the police knowing that they could face criminal charges themselves. It is also hard for sex workers to go to the police with a case because they know they will be blamed for the assault, if a sex worker is raped she is usually denied justice because of her profession; it seems that women in the sex trade are being denied their basic right to safety.

            They also face many different health risks. While many sex workers practice safe sex they are still vulnerable to disease and should be able to access proper health care. However, due to the criminalization of sex workers they are unable to get any sort of health insurance which can make their ability to access proper medical care difficult. As well the street sex workers are often victims of poverty which can lead to other issues then just sexually transmitted infections, they could also be suffering from many other issues such as malnutrition or drug addiction. If prostitution is legalize it would also mean that these women would be able to access regular testing for sexually transmitted infections, keeping both them and their clients safer from disease.

            The issues that these women face make it clear to me that the laws around prostitution need to be changed. In September 2010 Judge Susan Himmel began a hopeful process when she ruled that the prostitution laws made it more dangerous for sex workers in our country and in rejecting the laws she made a powerful statement that these women deserve the same rights as the rest of the population. This ruling is currently under a stay, so the laws are still in effect, until a review is done and the review is currently scheduled for April 29th 2011. It is a huge step forward in the battle for legalization of prostitution in Canada. By getting rid of the laws that prohibit bawdy houses, living of the avails of prostitution and communicating for the purpose of prostitution in a public place it would make it legal and safer to operate as a sex worker in Canada. It would give the sex workers options for where they could bring clients, instead of going where the client requests or bringing the client into their home, they could go to a legally operated brothel where there could be security, rules in place and other people around instead of going to a location that could be far from other people and the sex worker could get trapped. It also would mean that they could operate in a public space. Many sex workers are forced to work in the more dangerous and secluded areas because if they were to solicit in a public space they could be arrested. In the secluded areas the sex workers are again facing safety issues because these areas attract what are deemed “bad” clients or those who abuse the sex workers.

            I do feel that there should be laws surrounding the sex trade but I think those laws should be in the favour of the sex workers. Currently our sex trade workers are constantly facing danger by engaging in their profession, one that is not going away legal or not. They are trapped by laws that make them the criminal instead of criminalizing the clients who choose to be aggressive. They are stigmatized and treated as a less then the rest of the population and face violence because of that stigmatization. I think that we need laws that protect these workers from violence and give them a voice. They should have the same rights to a safe workplace as everyone else regardless of their chosen profession. I hope that Himmel’s ruling is given serious consideration instead of being quickly overturned because the law is supposed to be designed to help people instead of criminalizing the innocent. This leads back to a point I have made time and again, these women deserve the same human rights as everyone else and in denying them a safe space to work they are being denied their rights. If you are looking for more information on the sex trade in Canada here are the resources used for this article.

**I refer mostly to women in this article but they only make up 75-80% of the sex workers. The other 20% is male or transgender who are also facing the same issues of violence and stigma. – Sex Professionals of Canada website – Copy of the report The Challenge of Canada: A Study of Canada’s Criminal Prostitution Laws – Canada’s Criminal Code – section pertaining to prostitution


I wanted to pass along some commentary that got posted on the link to the blog on my facebook page. I feel that these comments are a great start to a conversation about the issue of prostitution legalization.

Made by M.H. – I find this quite interesting. I am working for an organization that does outreach to sex workers and rescues human trafficking victims, and it has been quite eye-opening. A very small percentage of workers are there voluntarily. Smaller th…an the article states, and I can directly quote my supervisor who has been involved in this for 20 years as saying about 2% are doing it because they want to. I used to think legalization of prositution was a good thing, but the past few months have changed that perspective. Yes, laws need to be changed to make their lives easier. But they need to be careful in how they change those laws – otherwise, it will make it easier for the large majority of these people to be victims of the sex trade. I think if they are going to make prositution legal, the government needs to start funding organizations that do outreach work and rescue victims at
the same time, and ensure the laws made are in the best interest of the girls. For many victims, striking down a law such as being unable to keep a bawdy house for example means they are making it legal for many girls to live in unsanitary, cramped, inhumane conditions. It is also a place to take a girl they have trafficked and cut her off from the outside world. They need to have some sort of laws in place to ensure this doesnt happen. Anyway just my thoughts lol

By S.T. – I would say that a small percentage of street workers are there voluntarily but prostitution is much larger than that and the legalization of prostitution would help out everyone not just those who are doing it voluntarily. If someone is go…ing to force another against their will to do something, they are going to no matter what and this legalization is not making it legal to traffic humans. We do need a lot more outreach, that is very true but I honestly see those issues as two very separate things. Of the four people I know personally who have been in the business of prostitution they all did it voluntarily. They may regret their decisions but it was still their decision. To me this seems as though it would make it easier for prostitutes who are being forced into it to go to the police with allegations of what has happened to them as it should remove some of the stigma surround the issue at large. Just my thoughts

By Liz (informalfeminist) – I think that both of you have valid points. I agree that there needs to be more outreach programs and support groups. I also would like to address the issue of choice, I wouldn’t use the term voluntary but for many people …this becomes the final option and the study that I was mentioning interviewed sex trade workers from many different areas of prostitution and not strictly people who have been victims of trafficking or street prostitution, I think there is a larger population of sex workers then that group. As the article states street prostitution only accounts for 5-20% of the trade. However, that does not mean that those are not important issues to address and it does not negate the harm that group suffers. If the laws were changed though those women could operate their business in public spaces making it much safer for them to pick up good” vs. “bad” clients, see the website. I see the change in the laws as a good thing because if they legalized owning a bawdy house then they could put into place health and safety standards and have these places being held accountable for the treament of the girls. I do agree though that if they were going to remove the laws then they should be prepared to replace them with laws to protect the workers in the trade.I also see how prostitution is very explotative and harmful but my point is that these workers are facing danger everyday, in getting rid of the laws it is a step towards laws to protect them and a step away from laws that criminalize the workers and not the people who abuse them.

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