Legal Sex Work in Canada Just Became Easier, But Will It Be Safer?

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We have a complicated relationship with the world’s oldest profession.

In many countries — including most of the United States, where it is a state issue — prostitution is illegal. But even in countries where it is not, the web of restrictions and regulations can be confusing to prostitutes and customers alike: in Sweden, it’s legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it. Lebanese prostitutes can legally work at a licensed brothel, but the government has a policy against issuing brothel licenses.

And though it has always been legal to sell your body for sex in Canada, until last week, it was impossible to make a living from doing it: illegal to live off the proceeds of that work, illegal to conduct that work in a house dedicated to prostitution and illegal to discuss or negotiate an agreement with potential customers.

When I lived in Canada three years ago, national attention was focused on a pig farmer from British Columbia named Robert Pickton who was convicted of killing six prostitutes from Vancouver’s down-and-out Downtown Eastside. Following his arrest, he had allegedly boasted to police that he was one kill short of 50 victims, a figure that matched missing-persons data for the city. This detail prompted many to ask how nearly 50 women could go missing before anyone noticed a pattern. It also prompted a national conversation about how to increase the safety of sex workers. (More on Study of American Sex Habits Suggests Boomers Need Sex Ed).

Professional organization had already gotten underway, but the national conversation gave a boost to several cooperatives of sex workers who were hoping to create labor standards for themselves and their colleagues. One of these groups, Sex Professionals of Canada, went on to file suit in 2007 against the federal government over the criminal codes that made sex work hard to do legitimately.

Three years later, on Sept. 28, Superior Court Justice Susan Himel in Ontario struck down many of these federal restrictions, including the laws forbidding negotiations with customers for sex and the operation a brothel, ruling them unconstitutional. The Globe and Mail reported:

In her 131-page ruling which took her a year to produce, Judge Himel found that laws set up to protect prostitutes actually endanger their safety, forcing them to furtively engage in hasty transactions conducted in shady locations.

“By increasing the risk of harm to street prostitutes, the communicating law is simply too high a price to pay for the alleviation of social nuisance,” she said. “I find that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public.”

The conservative party, which is currently in control of parliament, though with a minority government, may appeal the decision within 30 days and try to persuade Himel to delay the institution of her ruling. But most experts believe Himel’s ruling will become law. (More on In Postquake Haiti, an Influx of Dominican Prostitutes).

Supporters of Himel’s decision point to a wealth of data demonstrating that regulating the sex industry improves the health and well-being of its workers. Barbara Brents and Crystal Jackson, both sociologists from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and co-authors of The State of Sex: Tourism, Sex and Sin in the New American Heartland, have studied the legal prostitution trade in their city, and enumerated the ways in which it is safer for workers than in places where the industry remains illegal.

Brents and Jackson, whose work was cited in the recent Ontario ruling, wrote about their findings in an editorial in the Las Vegas Sun:

The ruling specifically cites research we conducted in Nevada’s legal brothels that points to a number of safety mechanisms that protect workers, such as: management listening over an intercom to negotiations with customers; cash is taken directly to a manager, providing the prostitute with an opportunity to communicate any reservations she may have about the client; panic buttons are available in every room to call management or set off an alarm if pressed; the brothel setting prevents clients from leaving very quickly and removes client anonymity; and after payment and before the sexual encounter, prostitutes perform a visual scan for indications of sexually transmitted infections — if there are issues, the money is returned and the client is asked to leave. More than 80 percent of licensed prostitutes we surveyed felt that their job was safe. We found no evidence of trafficking in the legal brothels.

Further, multiple studies have found that violence against sex workers goes hand-in-hand with the likelihood of drug addiction among victims. Addiction, in turn, lays the groundwork for chronic mental illness. Thus reducing the risk of violence would presumably improve mental health among prostitutes. (More on Craigslist Comes Clean: No More ‘Adult Services,’ Ever).

Still, legal brothels are no panacea for sex workers’ drug addiction or mental illness. Many women who enter prostitution — whether it is regulated or not — are already struggling with addiction. The parents of one of Robert Pickton’s victims wrote a public letter after pro–sex worker rights groups invoked their daughter’s name:

Our daughter was forced into prostitution because of the need to feed her addiction to drugs. To think of prostitution as a ‘job’ and treat it as such is ridiculous. I am disgusted to think that anyone would think that prostitution is a job. It is not. It is violence against women.

Neither legalizing prostitution nor having a brothel would have prevented the murder of our daughter. The women of the Downtown Eastside need meaningful solutions to their problems. We tried on numerous occasions to have Marnie admitted to drug rehabilitation facilities, but found that to be very difficult because of the chronic lack of beds and funding for such places.

When an addict reaches out for help, the resources should be available immediately. Is the best we can do for these women is give them a safe place to sell their bodies? There is no such thing as a “clean safe place” to be abused.

Indeed, a 2003 survey of sex workers in the United States found that 90% reported wanting to leave the industry immediately, according to a report in Medical Anthropology. And many who oppose the Ontario measure do so on the grounds that it legitimizes an industry designed to prey on people who struggle with addiction. (More on Does Mexico City Need a Red-Light District?).

But that does not discount the fact that the decriminalization of brothels could increase safety for those who participate in the sex trade. Currently in Canada, “indoor” prostitutes — those who don’t work on the street and are less likely to be in dire straits — have a much lower risk of being assaulted than prostitutes who work on the streets, according to testimony from Dr. Frances Shaver, professor of sociology at Concordia University and a founder of the Sex Trade Advocacy and Research group.

Of course it’s possible that prostitutes who work in brothels are exposed to less violence in part because brothels screen out women who are mentally unstable or drug addicted. Establishing legal brothels may do little to increase the safety of the women on the streets who are at greatest risk.

On balance, the future of prostitution in Canada looks less violent, less threatening to sex workers’ health and more stable, but the decriminalization of brothels should not cause us to lose sight of the 90% of women who do not wish to do what they are doing, who are trafficked, or in need of mental health and addiction care.

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Photos: The Politics of Sex