Retired sex-worker Sheryl Kiselbach and the DTES Sex Workers United Against Violence Society granted a standing by B.C. Court of Appeal to challenge provincial laws surrounding the sex-trade.
By Kyle Vinoly
Across Canada there is legislation in place to ensure a safe and healthy work environment for citizens at work, unless your occupation happens to be in the sex trade.
“It would be tough to do worse than what we are,” said John Lowman, a professor at Simon Fraser University who has spent the last 30 years studying laws surrounding prostitution in Canada and internationally. “The big message is we don’t give a damn about those women if they intend to keep prostituting. If they want to get out we’ll save them. But if they don’t want to get out basically we cast them to fate and we’re killing them in process.”
Earlier this month, retired sex-worker Sheryl Kiselbach and the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society were granted standing by the B.C. Court of Appeal to challenge the provincial laws surrounding prostitution. The group is trying to make sex-work safer for those who operate both on and off the street.
“Every one agrees the laws don’t make sense,” said Lowman, who feels politicians avoid the issue because they don’t think it will win them any points with the public.
“We’ve had something like 300 women across Canada disappear,” said Lowman. “That’s why these laws are in court because when you’ve got that kind of slaughter and the government won’t do anything about it you have to find a way to bring the powerful to account.”
Prostitution as an act is legal in Canada but communicating for the purposes of prostitution, living off the avails of prostitution and keeping a bawdy house are not. So by de facto, it is impossible to be a successful prostitute without breaking the law.
Advocacy groups and experts argue that those conditions force women into the street and make them more vulnerable to acts of violence.
The movement in B.C. follows on heels of a ruling in the Ontario Courts that decriminalized prostitution by striking down the legislation relating to acts surrounding the practice.
For members of the community and advocacy groups, the ruling was heralded as a victory and major turning point, but not everyone sees decriminalization as a positive step.
“If you don’t think the criminal element isn’t going to see [decriminalization] as a gold mine you’re sadly mistaken,” said Brian Sanders, acting Sergeant of the Vancouver Police Department’s Vice Unit.
He worries that the change in regulation will turn B.C. into a hot bed of criminal activity and create an influx of sex-workers into the province. His concern was echoed in Ontario where opponents of the constitutional challenge argued the same thing, but the evidence speaks to the contrary.
In every developed, western democracy that has decriminalized prostitution–Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands and Germany–there has been no recorded increase in the size of the sex industry.
Safety of the women increased dramatically once they moved indoors or off-street, which comprises roughly 80 per cent of the industry here in B.C.
For these women, the benefits to decriminalization would be a regulated market, labor standards, pension, medical access and the ability to communicate openly about industry practices.
“It’s the most difficult industry to bring people together because it’s so private,” said a booking agent for one of Vancouver’s premiere escort services who, due to legal reasons, must remain anonymous. “While what they do is legal, everything around them that could help them is illegal.”
Currently, escort services can only run an administrative office, can not entertain clients on premises, talk to their employees about sexual health or provide them with any kind of screening for sexually transmitted infections.
“It would be nice if people that are in this industry would get the same liberties as other people and get to be safe in their work,” said the agent.
Lowman feels that too often the debate about decriminalizing prostitution becomes more a statement about how people feel about the practice itself.
“We don’t want kids to drink but we’re not talking about criminalizing drinking,” said Lowman. “Do this in any other arena of life and people would be scratching their heads saying this is ridiculous, but we can’t see through the fog when it comes to prostitution.”
In her reasons for judgement Justice Susan Himel wrote that the previous legislation was not in accord with the principles of fundamental justice and had to be struck down.
“These laws, individually and together, force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Justie Himel in her statement. She was also very careful in explaining what the role of the court was not. “The court has not been called upon to decide whether or not there is a constitutional right to sell sex or to decide which policy model regarding prostitution is better. That is the role of Parliament. Rather, it is this court’s task to decide the merits of this particular legal challenge.”
Lowman, who was called as an expert witness during both the Ontario and B.C. cases, sees this recognition as the first step of what is likely to be a long process.
“The truth of it is that the municipalities and the provinces could make a worse job of it than we already are,” said Lowman “Basically you need to get three levels of government all working in the same direction with a clear vision of what it is we need to do.”
This in itself would be an accomplishment according to the professor, who is quick to add that for many women involved in sex-work, regulation alone will not be the answer.
“You can have any system of regulation but you’re still going to have people violating the regulations,” said Lowman. “People talk about a change in legal regime like it’s going to solve all problems and if it doesn’t then it’s a failure, it’s ridiculous. Different legal regimes are going to do better or worse depending on what is done and depending on what your definition of better or worse is.”
For sergeant Sanders the idea of any one being left behind is an unpleasant one.
“It’s not going to be the savior of all, it may be the savior for some,” said Sanders. “And that’s not right because you want to save them all.”
Even if you reduce the risk of violence against the women involved in sex-work you cannot eliminate it completely.
“You don’t see very many sex trade workers getting to pension time,” said Sanders, whose own niece was involved in the industry for a period of her life. “I wish I knew what the solution was.”
Ultimately it seems that both sides agree that keeping sex-workers safe is the priority, they just don’t agree on how it should be done.
Both the police and social advocates recognize the reasons men and women turn to prostitution varies and recognize for those whose main motivation is addiction, there are no easy solutions.
“Law isn’t going to solve the problem for those women in survival sex. The issues are poverty, what’s happened to first-nation women, the destruction of aboriginal culture and addiction,” said Lowman. “But until we’ve dealt with those things I think we need to keep them alive. I think that actually overrides moral considerations about how people feel toward prostitution.”
Currently a trial date for the case of decriminalization in B.C. is yet to be set.
Filed Under: News
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