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June 26, 2014

What to do about Prostitution

Reuel S. Amdur

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A conference on safety and the sex trade was held at Ottawa City Hall on June 13 under the auspices of Crime Prevention Ottawa. Safety was addressed primarily in terms of the danger of violence, particularly for streetwalkers, who in fact account for as few as five per cent of prostitutes. In the Vancouver Lower East Side, the figure may rise to 20%.

If we look at the issue broadly, there are three areas to examine: the danger of violence, the danger of sexually transmitted infection, and the impact on neighborhoods affected by street prostitution.  The conference did not address the issue of sexual infection and gave limited attention to neighborhood impact.

She also looked at the new Bill C-36 introduced by the Harper government to replace the sections of legislation that the Court struck down.

The Court’s decision last December in the Bedford case focused on three provisions of the law which made it a crime to keep or be in a bawdy house, to live off the avails of prostitution, or to communicate in public for the purpose of prostitution.  It found these provisions to be in violation of Section 7 of the Constitution, which provides that life, liberty, and security of the person are not to be infringed except in accordance with principles of fundamental justice.  It held that the provisions of the law subjected prostitutes to conditions that put them in danger.  It should be noted that prostitution in itself is not illegal in Canada.

Mann-Rempell outlined a hierarchy of safety of those plying the trade.  Safest is in the prostitute’s own home, next in the customer’s, least safe when contacted on the street.  Living off the avails punishes a bodyguard, driver, or receptionist.  The ban on communication hinders a person from adequately screening potential clients and tends to drive sex workers to isolated areas.

The Court also found the existing law to be in violation of fundamental justice.  It held the law to be arbitrary, too broad, and with effects grossly disproportionate to legislative goals.  Thus, while the goal of the provision criminalizing living off the avails was aimed at pimps, it swept up others such as guards and drivers.  With the Court giving the government till December 20, 2014, to come up with a new bill before the current legislation is null and void, the Tories have introduced Bill C-36 to replace the measures struck down.

Bill C-36 purports to given Canada the so-called Scandinavian model, outlawing buying sexual services but not selling them.  The bill would also forbid profiting on someone else’s prostitution, but it would permit non-exploitative relationships, for example the guard or driver.  It also would prohibit advertizing, except by the prostitute directly, and it brings back the prohibition against communicating for purposes of prostitution in public places, this time through the back door.  Such communication would not be permitted in places where children could “reasonably be expected” to be present.  That standard is quite broad.  Legally, a car could be seen as a public place.  And the legal definition of a child is anyone under 18. 

Frédérique Chapot, a member of POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work Educate Resist), said that the police in Ottawa, Vancouver, and Montreal are currently exercising the Scandinavian model.  This model makes for much better sex worker-police relations but it creates serious hazards around screening and being taken to isolated areas.  These problems, she argued, are exactly the reasons that the Supreme Court struck down the existing law.

There was fairly general agreement among attendees at the conference that Bill C-36 is an inadequate response to the problems the Supreme Court identified in the current legislation.  The provision on public communication is essentially the same in its effect.  The provision on advertizing raises all kinds of question about where it might be permitted.  Could a group of prostitutes advertize together?  Would a website or newspaper be allowed to accept advertisements? 

While street prostitutes are just a minority among the trade, in many places just a small minority, they were a major concern in the conference.  It was noted that the use of the computer, cell phones, and other such devices serve to limit the need of prostitutes to rely on streetwalking.  Thus, ever more the street trade is carried on by the most desperate and often most troubled with addiction and mental health problems.  Consequently, safety is only one of the needs that they have.  More addiction treatment services and accessible mental health services were identified in the conference as needs.  Poverty was also noted as a factor driving women onto the street.

A neighborhood advocate, Cheryl Parrott, pointed to problems that the street trade creates for neighborhoods where it proliferates—littering, loud noises late at night, local women being propositioned, feelings of being unsafe.  She has been a teaching participant in Ottawa’s Johns school, which gives men caught in a police decoy operation the chance to choose between the school or facing a charge in court.  The decoy operation uses a female policeman acting as if waiting for clients seeking sex.  The Johns School approach has led to a marked decline in problems in her neighborhood, but the situation moves to other neighborhoods.

Conference participants were clearly not supportive of C-36.  However, we are left with problems around street prostitution, the safety of the sex workers, and the peace and security of neighborhoods.  As for the streetwalkers, these are often people with serious multiple needs, requiring dedicated outreach workers and other institutional supports for addictions and mental health.

The issue of sexually transmitted infections was essentially absent from the discussion, but it is a serious one, especially for streetwalkers and their customers.  Here again, an outreach approach seems indicated, in this case perhaps using public health nurses.

Also absent from the conference was any discussion about municipally operated brothels.  George Orwell briefly described such an arrangement in Homage to Catalonia.  When the anarchists held Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, they collectivized prostitution into brothels.  A similar arrangement could provide safety for prostitutes and customers, minimize exploitation and sexually transmitted diseases (nurses on site, doctors on call), provide focus for mental health and addiction and social service efforts—including help in leaving the trade.  And even make money for the municipality!  It would, however, not likely eliminate street prostitution, nor would it eliminate freelancers using newspaper and computer advertizing. 

Another alternative is legalization, as in New Zealand.  That would be the subject of another analysis.

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