Toronto Star's View: Ottawa’s crackdown on the sex...
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Jun 04, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Toronto Star's View: Ottawa’s crackdown on the sex trade fails the victims

The Harper government’s move to criminalize the sex trade risks driving it deeper into the shadows, multiplying the dangers for sex workers

OurWindsor.Ca

Being a prostitute in Canada has always been legal but dangerous work. It’s an ugly, exploitive business that trades on vulnerable women, demeans and victimizes them, drives them into the shadows and exposes them to violence.

Why, then, is Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government bent on making the sex trade even riskier by criminalizing it?

That’s exactly what Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and the entire Supreme Court did not have in mind last year when they voted — unanimously—to strike down Canada’s major prostitution-related laws because they exposed sex workers to unacceptable dangers.

At the time the Supreme Court reminded us that “it is not a crime in Canada to sell sex for money.” Or to buy it, for that matter. But government had so hemmed in the sex trade with legal restrictions that prostitutes were forced to work in unacceptably “dangerous conditions” that “heighten the risks” of plying their trade, the court found. That violated their basic Charter right to security of the person. The court said that existing laws barred prostitutes from working in “fixed” indoor locations which are safer than the streets; from hiring receptionists, drivers or security staff to screen customers and provide protection; and from being able to benefit from safe health practices.

As a result, the court struck down the Criminal Code’s triple ban on brothels, on living off the avails of prostitution and on communicating for the purposes of prostitution. And it gave the government a year to rewrite the laws, to improve the safety of sex workers.

Five months later Justice Minister Peter MacKay has rolled out the government response to this divisive and emotional issue, and what a boneheaded one it is. Rather than simply remedy the existing law, as the Supreme Court required, the obtusely named Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act criminalizes the sex trade. “The purchase and sale of sex has never been illegal in Canada . . . That changes today,” MacKay announced. That will only compound the problem and make prostitution even riskier than before.

This flies in the face of polling that suggests more Canadians favour decriminalization than cracking down on prostitutes and clients. And the new law invites a fresh constitutional challenge.

As the Star’s Tonda MacCharles reports, prostitutes can now be charged and face six months in jail or fines if they try to sell sex “in a public place, or in any place open to public view, that is or is next to a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present.” In this permissive day and age, that can be pretty much anywhere, at all times of the day and night.

The new law also comes down hard by criminalizing the purchasers of sexual services. “Johns” now face up to five years in prison or fines of up to $4,000.

And it prohibits advertising for the sale of others’ sexual services in print or online.

All this will have a “devastating impact on sex workers’ safety,” warns Katrina Pacey, a lawyer for Pivot Legal Society which has campaigned for reform in this area. More women will end up working in the shadows, be slapped into jail, go missing or be murdered, she told CBC News.

The new law will force prostitutes to work in isolated, unsafe areas to avoid any possible risk of coming across a youth. Clients won’t want to come to relatively safe indoor locations, knowing that the police may be parked outside, trolling for johns. So they’ll demand that prostitutes jump into their cars without having time to screen them or meet them in isolated places. That will leave sex workers with even less access to police protection.

Given the damage this bill will do to sex workers, the government’s promise of $20 million to fund agencies to help them quit the trade is an insincere pittance. Far from providing safer conditions for sex workers, this bill is about driving them underground and out of business. Whatever the cost.

Toronto Star

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