In September an Ontario judge struck down three provisions of Canadian prostitution law as causing sex workers’ lives to be riskier than other citizens’. If attempts to delay this new regime fail, soon three activities considered criminal by the law up to now will be allowed: operating brothels, soliciting and living from money earned by someone selling sex. The central government is decrying this decriminalisation, which applies only to Ontario, claiming all manner of dire consequences will ensue:
- irreparable harms to the public interest
- distinctions in the operation of the Criminal Code between Ontario and the rest of Canada
- profound and immediate consequences upon communities, neighbourhoods and women engaged in prostitution in this province
- legal uncertainty across Canada
- the movement of prostitutes to Ontario from other jurisdictions
- more drug trafficking, violence, garbage, noise and traffic from johns
- red light districts will emerge
- prostitutes’ lives will be in danger
- authorities will be powerless to protect residents in vulnerable neighbourhoods
- more prostitutes will likely be exploited by pimps
- police would be forced to abandon all ongoing investigations
- human trafficking, prostitution of minors, extortion and assault will go undetected
- four pimps expressed concern that organized criminals will get involved in street prostitution and guns and gang violence will follow
- a youth worker said pimps were making preparations to come out of retirement.
- an increase of numbers of women on the street would make it easier to camouflage underage prostitutes among them
- Canada will be plunged into a social experiment unprecedented in this country that will profoundly and irreversibly alter the status quo
In other words, they are afraid of Change. They are fantasising all the scary things that could happen, but they cannot provide any evidence that they will happen. Since the status quo on prostitution is dysfunctional in so many ways everywhere, an experiment based on sound judicial reasoning seems like a good idea. The government’s argument
that the laws that exist, exist to protect people and protect communities . . . We don’t want people to be lured into this area. We don’t want communities to be dealing with this. These laws have been on the books for a reason and for a long time.
is a weak argument. Think of some of the terrible laws that have been overturned as societies interested in social justice realise they are unjust. New Zealand, which decriminalised the sex industry in a comparable way some time ago, has not been plunged into social chaos, and I suppose Canada belongs to the same socio-legal universe as that country (settled by British migrants, originally, for one big thing).
The predictions, compiled from a number of Canadian media sources, would seem to indicate that this issue will end up in a higher, national court – which is presumably what the sex worker-complainants wanted.
Note on bawds: the Ontario law preserves antiquated language, so the brothel-ban is on bawdy houses, soliciting is known as communicating and avails are what no one is allowed to ‘live off’. The fact that these terms still describe the law was in itself a reason to consider revising it – not for the sake of updating language per se but because the concepts behind them indicate a social context that has changed. I did so appreciate Judge Himel’s analysis of the history of the laws.
– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist