Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sex law hurts workers

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The Harper government's new anti-prostitution legislation will undoubtedly put a dent in the world's oldest profession, but it is unlikely to stamp it out altogether. In fact, it is likely to make it much more dangerous for sex workers who are determined to ply their trade.

As such, the legislation arguably fails to meet the minimum standard set by the Supreme Court of Canada when it struck down the old laws because they hindered a prostitute's ability to conduct her business safely. The laws against soliciting, keeping a common bawdy house and living off the avails of prostitution effectively made it illegal for women to hire bodyguards, conduct business in a safe establishment or seek clients on the street.

The proposed new legislation goes even further. The selling of sexual services would not be illegal, but anything associated with the purchase of sex would be criminalized. The goal is to eliminate demand and punish customers; services will be provided for prostitutes who want to exit the business.

Women will no longer be able to use the Internet or any form of media to advertise sexual services, while escort agencies and massage parlours engaged in the sex-for-pay trade would also be outlawed.

The sum total of all the new restrictions is that women will be driven out of their homes, off the Internet and into the darkest corners of the sex trade. They will be forced onto remote street corners, or into the hands of pimps.

An extensive study published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) Open concluded the criminalization of clients made the work of prostitutes more dangerous, particularly for those who work the street.

The study of sex workers in Vancouver, where police target customers only, said women reported having to stay out longer because potential clients were nervous. The longer they were on the street, the greater the risks, the women reported. They added their customers tended to drive to different areas of the city if police were present, forcing the women to move away, too.

The study said police tactics had a limited effect on street-based sex work and "did not reduce the prevalence of sex work-related violence."

It also "profoundly impacted sex workers' ability to negotiate their working conditions and health and safety," in part because women felt compelled to jump into cars quickly before they had time to assess the customer.

A report into missing and murdered women in B.C. also said the country's prostitution laws put women at risk.

The government's legislation is clearly motivated by the assumption prostitution is degrading to women. Many women in the sex trade are undoubtedly victims -- of addiction, abusive pimps, poverty and desperation -- but the goal of public policy should not be to eliminate their ability to conduct their business safely. It should instead provide support and programs for those who need help.

Some women are in the trade by choice, and they should be allowed to practise their profession under well-defined conditions.

A regulated industry would require sex workers to be licensed, to hire security, advertise and work out of their homes. They would be required to meet standard employment health and safety regulations, a system that works effectively in several countries.

The Tory government, however, has chosen a version of the so-called Nordic model as it is practised in countries such as Sweden. Some studies show the Swedish approach did reduce prostitution, at least in its most visible forms. The experts disagree on whether it made their lives safer.

Moral questions aside, it is on that issue -- safety -- the new legislation will either stand or fall.

Armed with studies such as the one in the BMJ and others, however, sex-trade workers could easily march into court and plead their charter rights to safety are jeopardized by the new legislation. The government missed an opportunity to develop more balanced legislation, but there is still time to recognize draconian legislation may do more harm than good.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2014 A12

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