Sex workers: To protect or punish?

In the wake of a serial prostitute killer, Canada cracks down on the trade, putting women at greater risk

Published September 2, 2010 1:01PM (EDT)

Countries of the world, take note -- this is an example of poor legislative timing: Canada has passed measures that arguably put sex workers in greater danger, just as anger mounts over the mishandling of the investigation into a serial prostitute killer. Adding to the current tension, a verdict is expected this month in a complaint challenging sections of the criminal code on the grounds that it violates prostitutes' constitutional right to "liberty and security."

The legality of prostitution is always controversial, even in a country like Canada where it is technically legal, and where everyone is purported to be so darn nice. (I say "technically legal," because the criminal code places restrictions on the sale of sex that effectively make it illegal in most practical scenarios.) However, given the recent focus on the case of Robert Pickton, a pig farmer who preyed on prostitutes in Vancouver, the debate has perhaps never been so intensely emotionally fraught. Add to that the fact that, according to a recent report out of the Vancouver Police Department, Pickton was allowed to continue his killing spree for years in part because -- to the surprise of exactly zero sex workers -- police discredited crucial tips from local prostitutes. Now they're really going to appreciate that law enforcement crackdown.

As The Toronto Star's Antonia Zerbisias puts it, the federal regulations broadly aimed at fighting organized crime were "enacted in the dead of summer without Parliamentary debate" and "give government the powers to wiretap, deny bail, and move in on people without the usual safeguards such as warrants." The upshot is that "a trio of prostitutes partying together with their 'dates' are tantamount to The Sopranos, and deserve the same treatment as gun runners or drug gangs," she writes. "Instead of a maximum two-year term, sex workers could now face 'at least five years' in prison, have all their assets seized and their children taken away." In the face of such penalties, advocates say sex workers will turn to the streets, which aren't as safe and take away their ability to fully screen clients.

As for the complaint currently sitting before the Ontario Supreme Court, the aim is to repeal the laws that effectively make prostitution illegal: the ban on public solicitation, living off the proceeds of sex for pay and running a "bawdy house" (broadly defined as "a place that is kept or occupied, or resorted to by one or more persons, for the purpose of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency"). The plaintiffs' argument isn't just in defense of their right to make money by having sex, but also their right to do so without having to put their lives at risk. As Kate Harding summarized last November:

The fear of losing their assets and homes for illegally living on money earned by providing a legal service is one part of it, but the more important part is that changing the laws could save lives. Unable to work openly, in groups or to hire security, sex workers believe they are more at risk of robbery, assault, rape and murder under the current criminal code than they would be if prostitution were fully decriminalized.

It's easy to express outrage over the Pickton murders, and the fact that police exhibited a bias against local prostitutes that hurt the investigation and allowed a serial killer to continue his spree -- but the real question, the only one that really matters now, is what's going to be done to best protect sex workers and prevent this from happening again.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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