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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 30, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 13
Ontario appeals court says sex workers have rights
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Ontario appeals court says sex workers have rights

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer In a landmark decision announced on March 26, the Court of Appeal of Canada's Ontario Province endorsed the constitutional right of sex workers to a safe working environment. In a unanimous decision, the court struck down laws prohibiting brothels.

In Canada's legal system, the Court of Appeal is equivalent to a state supreme court in the United States.

Beginning in 2013, the appeals court said, Ontario's sex workers can work in brothels that are operated like any other business. As of April 25, they may hire bodyguards or security staff.

The inherent dangers of sex work are multiplied by laws preventing sex workers from working together under one roof or hiring security, the court found.

'The record is clear that the safest way to sell sex is for a prostitute to work indoors, in a location under her control,' the court said.

In Canada, buying and selling sexual services is legal, but most ancillary activities - running a brothel, for example - have been illegal.

Sex workers are forced to break the law if they work in brothels, the court said, but they risk being killed or maimed by violent customers if they work independently.

'The impact on those put at risk by the legislation is extreme,' the court found.

'We have no hesitation endorsing the application judge's holding that the impact of the bawdy house prohibition on prostitutes, and particularly street prostitutes, is grossly disproportionate to its legislative objective.'

The Ontario court said in its March 26 decision that the so-called 'bawdy house' law must be struck down in its entirety.

The court also modified the pimping law by adding a phrase. In the future it will be illegal to live off the proceeds of prostitution 'in circumstances of exploitation.'

The change will allow police to prosecute violent and manipulative pimps while at the same time permitting sex workers to hire drivers or security staff to protect them, the court said.

The judges summarily dismissed arguments that prostitutes are autonomous workers who make an informed decision to engage in a dangerous trade, knowing the risks that face them.

'This submission must fail,' they said. 'It implies that those who choose to engage in the sex trade are for that reason not worthy of the same constitutional protection as those who engage in other dangerous, but legal, enterprises.'

The court left just one provision of the old law intact. On a 3-2 split decision, it said that communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution should remain illegal. The two judges who wanted to strike that provision too, argued that the communication law forces street prostitutes to strike a deal with customers without first being able to size them up, thus putting them in danger.

Nonetheless, the decision was hailed as a historic victory by the plaintiffs.

'It's so nice to feel that we have been brought into society,' said Valerie Scott, legal coordinator of Sex Professionals of Canada. 'I feel like a debutante. I feel like a citizen.'

Nikki Thomas, executive director of SPOC, told reporters it is time for federal, provincial, and municipal politicians to sit down with sex workers' representatives and work out regulatory schemes that will keep workers and their clients safe and healthy.

Thomas said that prostitutes are well on the way to being normal citizens who file income taxes, purchase property and investments, and go about their employment without disturbing others.

'We are not going to have fire and brimstone and sex workers raining down from the sky,' she said. Scott added that brothels have always existed.

'There is a brothel on every block in every city, and there always has been,' she said.

The SPOC spokespeople warned against attempts by Canada's Parliament to reconstitute prostitution laws in the wake of the appeals court decision.

'Any form of criminalization pushes the industry underground and gives opportunities for predators,' Thomas said.

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