Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sex trade ill-served by the law

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There is no better illustration of the dangers confronting women in the survival sex trade -- the selling of their bodies on the streets for sexual services to make money for food, rent or to feed an addiction -- than the lengthy list of those who disappeared from the streets of Vancouver published in a report into British Columbia's missing and murdered women. And there is probably no better way to describe the pernicious effect of Canada's criminalization of prostitution on such women than in the report's first volume.

Wally Oppal, in his 1,440-page report, noted his mandate did not extend to commenting on Canada's prostitution laws, which proscribe not prostitution itself but the communication for the purpose, living off the avails and operating a brothel.

Yet he left no doubt about the impact of the law. It places women who work on the street in elevated danger and played directly into the fates of the missing and murdered women -- many of whom were murdered by Robert Willy Pickton -- who lived in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

There was a day when prostitution was regarded as a moral offence; today the prostitution laws are supported ostensibly to protect the public and the women who sell sex. Rather, in hopes of dodging police and arrest, the women either voluntarily move or are physically pushed from residential or commercial areas by police, into the dark side streets and more dangerous areas of the city.

Experts testifying before Mr. Oppal's commission noted that law enforcement was triggered by public complaints of the nuisance and risk street workers and their customers posed to others, including children.

"(T)he police used a containment strategy... that pushed women into isolated areas, increasing their vulnerability to violence... The fear of police harassment or arrest leads prostitutes to rush transactions, jump into cars quickly, and move to dark or more isolated areas.

"The rushed transaction denies the sex worker the time to innately sense whether a client is a 'bad trick,' and moving to a darker, isolated area puts her in a more dangerous environment."

The inquiry report noted that studies have shown the murder rate of women involved in street prostitution is 60 to 120 times that of other adult women.

There have been successive court decisions that reinforce the phenomenon the B.C. inquiry on missing and murdered women found. But there can be nothing so damning to Canada's prostitution laws than a finding, in the wake of Willy Pickton's conviction for mass murder of survival sex trade workers, that the law combined with other factors to deliver women into his hands.

The Harper government is appealing a court order that would pave the way to decriminalize prostitution, and to regulation of the sex trade in defined zones and businesses that would better protect women and their customers, and move the trade away from the public and especially children.

There is no telling whether Pickton and other predators could have been entirely deterred from their crimes, but the scale of the carnage can and must be dramatically reduced by more a useful, decriminalized approach to prostitution. Criminalizing the sex trade entrenches risk to those most vulnerable.

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 December 20, 2012 A14

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