Most dangerous profession

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THERE'S an adage that says if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem begins to look like a nail. For years, Canadians have tried to pound away at prostitution with the hammer of criminal law. Sadly, prostitution is not at its base a problem of the law. Instead, prostitution is a social, economic, health and community issue.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/09/2007 (5456 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THERE’S an adage that says if the only tool you have is a hammer, then every problem begins to look like a nail. For years, Canadians have tried to pound away at prostitution with the hammer of criminal law. Sadly, prostitution is not at its base a problem of the law. Instead, prostitution is a social, economic, health and community issue.

And, as recent events have demonstrated dramatically, prostitution is increasingly an issue of safety for its participants.

Three women involved in Winnipeg’s sex trade have been found recently murdered. This raises the toll of dead or missing women to as many as 18 since 1983. As if this were not tragic enough, it seems patently clear to any of us who have studied Canada’s prostitution laws that the high rate of homicide among prostitutes is not simply an inherent risk of sex work. Instead, Canada’s prostitution laws may be literally killing women who work in this industry. It is time that Canadians take seriously the issue of prostitution law reform and think about decriminalizing an industry that is arguably the most dangerous in Canada.

Pushed into the most marginal parts of the city by laws dating back to the Victorian era, street prostitutes are vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Statistics Canada notes in its most recent report on homicide that sex work is the most deadly occupation in Canada. Figures suggest that sex work is in fact more dangerous than police work. In 2005, five police officers were killed while on duty, while in the same year nine sex trade workers were reported killed.

Lest anybody think that this number is an anomaly, the report notes that nine sex trade workers has been about the average number of prostitutes murdered yearly since well before the gruesome discoveries on Robert Pickton’s Port Coquitlam pig farm.

Furthermore, Statistics Canada admits they likely undercount the number of prostitutes killed each year, as they only record instances where police know for sure that the homicide occurred in relation to prostitution.

If any other occupation resulted in as much death, Canadians would no doubt be demanding answers. Why has no collective outrage characterized the discussion of Canadian prostitution law?

Prostitution remains an activity that is not technically illegal in this country. Yet a combination of laws exists that makes it virtually impossible to practice without running afoul of the justice system.

Sex workers with some means and ingenuity are able to operate relatively safely at the margins of legality by working from their homes or through referrals by municipally regulated and licensed escort services.

Though technically illegal under the “bawdy house” provisions, police seldom target off-street sex work. Customers of greater means are thus able to make use of these off-street sex services with virtual impunity, avoiding nearly all risk of arrest. However, for the most marginal of sex trade workers, those who work on the streets, Canada’s prostitution laws ensure that they will be continually pushed out of stable commercial or residential neighbourhoods and into more marginal areas where they face increasing risks.

Canada’s prostitution laws are clearly a bust. The last time Canada made changes to its prostitution laws was in 1985 with the enactment of the so-called communicating law (s. 213). This law makes it an offence to communicate in a public place for prostitution. The law can be largely attributed to lobbying efforts of upper middle class residents of Toronto and Vancouver who wanted the nuisance of prostitution moved out of their neighbourhoods at any cost.

This law came in spite of the government commissioned Fraser Committee Report, which recommended decriminalization and permitting private forms of prostitution to operate without legal interference. The PC government of the day ignored these recommendations and instead enacted this clumsy new law which criminalizes not the act of prostitution, but communicating in a public place for the purpose of prostitution.

The result has not been eradication of street prostitution but merely its dispersal and movement out of more salubrious parts of the downtown — for example, Winnipeg’s Exchange District — and into parts of the city with little social capital or political clout, such as Winnipeg’s West End.

A 2006 Parliamentary review committee concluded that the communicating law endangers sex trade workers and ought to be repealed.

Why has there been no action from our federal government? The sad reality is that the consumers of the trade continue to have access to sex with little chance of arrest while street prostitutes have an increased chance of both arrest and violent death because of this faulty law.

Truly, the only people who benefit from Canada’s prostitution laws are the men who seek the services of prostitutes. For street prostitutes and their families, the result is a cycle of misery and death that appears to have no end in sight.

It’s time to rethink Canada’s prostitution laws because what we have now has claimed far too many lives. It’s time to get collectively outraged.

Steven Kohm is an assistant professor and acting chair in the criminal justice department, University of Winnipeg.

s.kohm@uwinnipeg.ca

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