Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sex trade laws were misguided

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The Harper government announced Wednesday it would appeal the Ontario Superior Court judgment that struck down Canada's futile efforts to outlaw prostitution. That appeal faces a formidable hurdle -- to convince jurists the decision by Justice Susan Himel was in error or misguided.

The case against the law was effectively argued on the basis of security of sex trade workers. The current law does not suppress prostitution, it merely forces workers to carry on their trade in risky conditions that contribute to the level of violence they regularly experience. The judge's decision, which struck down laws that prohibit communication for the purpose of buying sex, pimping and keeping a brothel, was based on the weight of evidence of that risk. The harm of the law, she concluded, far outweighed the harm prostitution presents to society at large.

So strong was the evidence that the judge suspended her decision for a brief 30 days to allow legislators and the Crown to respond. As the federal government musters its appeal, provinces should present arguments to the court about the task they face in establishing a new regime of regulation.

Regulation is the better response. The prostitution laws in Canada have gone through various incarnations through the years as lawmakers, emerging from 19th-century morality, sought to balance changing social mores against the evils that swirl about prostitution -- the spread of disease, human trafficking, the abuse of minors and the trade's historic connection to the illegal drug industry. Every iteration of law to date has carried fatal weaknesses that victimize women disproportionately.

The warnings of the many who regard legalization as a welcome mat to human traffickers cannot be disregarded. The fact that this crime is rising globally underscores the necessity of vigilance, better law enforcement and tighter immigration controls.

The overwhelming evidence that sex trade workers often were sexually exploited and abused youth indicates the work Canada must do to protect children. But turning adult sex trade workers into criminals does nothing to address that root problem. It does, however, force women and male prostitutes into the clutches of pimps and drug dealers who give them tacit protection while enslaving them in an exploitive relationship.

Municipal and provincial regulation that licences sex trade workers and conditions of work will not make battling the illegal trade in sex -- blossoming under a cellphone culture with text-messaging impunity -- any easier. It would make the work safer for prostitutes and johns and allow communities to dictate where they will allow the trade to operate.

It is simplistic to describe prostitution as a victimless crime, a form of employment that workers "choose." The forces that drive women and men into the sex trade deserve greater social and legal attention. Governments must invest in resources to assist those who want to get out of the trade.

The roots of human exploitation grow from criminal activity. The battle of human trafficking and child abuse starts there, not with laws that push sex trade workers into the margins of society where pimps, drug dealers and organized crime can capitalize on their misery.

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 September 30, 2010 A12

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