Column: Progressive Views – Supreme Court Prostitution Ruling

tristan headshotby Tristan Turner

Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously agreed to strike down many of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws after hearing a case from Valerie Scott, Terri-Jean Bedford and Amy Lebovitch, three sex workers who have been campaigning for legal changes to decriminalize prostitution in Canada for years. In their challenge, Terri-Jean Bedford claimed that the reason for challenging the current laws was that they created an environment that was dangerous for sex workers, as they made it challenging for women working in the industry to seek police assistance in situations with dangerous clients for fear of imprisonment. Additionally, the case challenged that the current laws were unnecessarily complex and broad, making it difficult for them to be enforced justly as officers themselves are often uncertain of the legal complexities, a matter the Court agreed with particularly.

Clarifying the decision, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said after the proceedings that “it is not a crime in Canada to sell sex for money.”

Despite the Chief Justice’s comments, it appears the legalities of this case have become far more complex than that. In the decision, McLachlin went on to state that for the next year prostitution would be handled under the Criminal Code of Canada, giving parliament the opportunity to make new laws so long as they are not at the expense of the health and safety of sex workers.

Soon after the decision was announced, the federal Heritage Minister Shelly Glover stated that her government was “disappointed” by the ruling and ostensibly argued that the status quo was the Conservatives preferred scenario, claiming that there are significant legal provisions in the Criminal Code of Canada to protect sex workers, and that it was her government’s utmost concern to “ensure the safety of our communities”.

The minister went on to say that she is concerned about the dangerous and unhealthy circumstances that women experience while being subjected to prostitution or illegal trafficking. In these comments, the minister couldn’t be more accurate, however it is largely the fault of the laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court as well as the government’s failure to properly regulate the prostitution industry that these abuses of basic human rights are so prevalent.

The answer to solving the abuses that exist in the Canadian sex trade is not to penalize consenting sex workers by keeping archaic laws that effectively make their work illegal and take away their right to dignity, safety and security that is present in all other fields of work in this country. If a solution is to be found, parliament should pursue a new model of legalization and strict regulation to ensure that all Canadian sex workers that engage in the industry of their own interest and volition are safe, and that all who are preyed upon and forced into sex work have access to a more streamlined legal system that may act more robustly in ensuring their right to determine their own fate free from exploitation.

Unfortunately, these changes will likely never come under the current government, who wishes to instate laws similar to the damaging ones struck down by Canada’s highest court. If progress on this issue is to be made, parliamentarians from across party lines will need to come together to produce legislation with the consultation of sex workers that will ensure safer and healthier communities by giving sex workers access to the same rights enjoyed by all other workers in Canada.

Update note: The word simple was changed to the word complex in paragraph three.

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