a legal dance around prostitution in canada

On March 26th, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down a ban on brothels. The judges ruled that prostitutes should be allowed to legally take their trade indoors and pay staff to support them. How the court’s views on prostitution have evolved by Daniel Henry, a Senior Legal Counsel, gives some judicial history to this issue in Canada. But don’t expect clarity. The legal dance around what should be legalized and what should remain within the criminal code requires some tricky mind-work.

Ronald Weitzer, a professor of sociology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C and author of Legalizing Prostitution from Illicit Vice to Lawful Business, stated in a CBC News interview that “Victimization is reduced with other parties present, and often in brothels they have alarm systems, maybe a hidden camera at the entrance and other screening techniques that the receptionist or the manager will engage in prior to the man or client even getting in the door.”

Not everyone believes that legalizing brothels guarantees a classy and safe environment for sex trade workers. Shelly Gilbert, who works with Legal Assistance of Windsor and the Anti-Human Trafficking Action Group, believes “This legislation is trying to speak to some of the protection required by a particular group of sex workers…There needs to be legislation that speaks specifically to what that exploitation and coercion means.” The ruling doesn’t help the women she works with. “It doesn’t help them to get out of the industry, necessarily,” she said. “Many are not making enough money to hire people. Most of the women I’m working with are still struggling in poverty.”

The Catholic Register reported on a March 24 conference on human trafficking, organized by the Loretto Sisters, ‘Myth of prostitution as a choice must be challenged’ – human trafficking conference. Bridget Perrier, a sex-trade survivor, spoke with the moral authority of experience. “We always hear that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. I always say it’s the world’s oldest oppression…Really, it’s paid rape. It’s child abuse.”

Simply put, “It’s the men who should be punished,” she said. “Their wives should know. They’ve got a right to know…Men need to be held accountable…It needs to start when they’re little. They need to be taught that we honour women, they are our life givers.”

Joy Smith, a Conservative MP from Winnipeg, believes the law must target the market for women, girls and boys. “We cannot allow our children to be bought and sold. It just can’t happen.” Smith is the sponsor of Bill C-310 which would allow Canadian courts to prosecute human trafficking offences committed outside Canada by Canadians or permanent residents of Canada.

In the midst of the intricate legal language and wrangling, the voices of Ms. Perrier and Ms. Smith shine with the simplicity of truth. As with many social justice issues of our time, change will not come from pruning the occasional branch or pinching off a dead bud or two. We need to get to the root of the problem. And, at the root of prostitution are oppression, exploitation and abuse.