TORONTO — Canada’s prostitution laws have created a “sinister” dilemma for sex-trade workers by forcing them off the streets while forbidding them from moving indoors, an Ontario court heard Tuesday.
Pressing to have the laws thrown out, a lawyer for three sex-trade workers argued that provisions outlawing communication for the purposes of prostitution, living off the avails, and keeping a bawdy house are contributing to the horrific violence women often face while plying a legal trade.
“This is not about a right to sell sex — you can sell sex,” lawyer Alan Young told Ontario Superior Court.
“It’s about a right to liberty and security.”
Young stressed the constitutional challenge is not about a moral evaluation of the sex trade. Nor does it quibble with the “classic” pimping provisions designed to prevent exploitation of women or rules aimed at protecting children.
Instead, he said, the laws enacted in 1985 were an attempt at dealing with the public nuisance created by street walkers but failed to recognize the alternative — allowing women to work more safely indoors — was prohibited.
Young cited statistics behind the “shocking and horrific” stories of women who work the streets along with research that was not available when the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the ban on communication for prostitution purposes in 1990.
The case of Robert Pickton, who was convicted in 2007 of killing six women and still may face another 20 murder charges, is one example of similar tragedies across the country, court heard.
Violence against prostitutes has only increased in recent years, Young said.
Police are still searching for dozens of missing sex-trade workers in cities across Canada.
Young called it “bizarre” that the ban on bawdy houses is an indictable offence that carries stiffer sanctions, including jail time and potential forfeiture of a woman’s home, when the communications ban is usually a summary offence that at most leads to fines.
The overly broad interrelated provisions prevent hookers from properly screening clients, hiring security or working in the comfort and safety of their own homes or brothels, he said.
Body guards, drivers, business partners, or even roommates may all find themselves ensnared by the laws and even end up on the sex-offender registry because of their relationship with a prostitute, Young told Justice Susan Himel, who is hearing the week-long case.
“The law criminalizes others who participate in obvious strategies a sex worker may take protect herself.”
Dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, whose “bondage bungalow” case garnered headlines in the mid 1990s, Val Scott, an activist sex-trade worker, and Amy Lebovitch, a prostitute who works from home, are challenging the provisions as unconstitutional.
“The dangers on the streets are rapes, robberies and beatings which happen on a daily basis and sometimes our murders; this really has to end,” Scott said outside court.
“We cannot keep doing this to a segment of the Canadian population just because some people have a moral problem with the idea of commercial sex. It does not make it all right for us to be the social punching bag for society.”
Young noted research that indicates street hookers are dozens of times more likely than the average woman to be murdered. Still, he added, at most only 46 per cent of prostitute murders are solved while police typically solve 80 per cent of homicides in general.
Ironically, Young said, current statistics suggest 80 per cent of the sex trade now takes place indoors, often in body-rub parlours that are licensed by municipalities which earn “huge” fees. At the same time, 90 per cent of the thousands of charges laid each year are related to outdoor prostitution, with the women charged in 51 per cent of the cases.
Groups opposed to prostitution are intervening in the case.
Ranjan Agarwal, a lawyer acting for the Christian Legal Fellowship, the Catholic Civil Rights League and REAL Women of Canada, said Canadians don’t believe that prostitution is a legitimate activity even though sex for money is legal in Canada.
“That doesn’t mean that the constitution can be used as a sword to strike down what are legitimate, democratic restrictions on the activities around prostitution,” Agarwal said.
“It may cause jeopardy to women in the trade . . . but at the end of the day, our (constitution) is based upon fundamental perceptions of morality and those fundamental perceptions say that certain activities around prostitution are not valid and not legal.”