Canada’s Supreme Court has just declared the country’s anti-prostitution laws unconstitutional. The Canadian Parliament now has one year to rewrite its prostitution laws, and we in the United States should closely watch what happens next. This ruling provides a much-needed opportunity for legislators and sex workers to work together and create a framework that will help adult prostitutes work safely.
In Canada, prostitution is actually legal. However, all of the activities surrounding it, such communicating in public, living off of the earnings or running a bawdy house, were not. Valerie Scott, Amy Lebovitch and Terri-Jean Bedford, the advocates of sex-worker rights who initiated the case Bedford v. Canada, argued that these laws endangered prostitutes by forcing them to work in out-of-the-way locations and conceal their activities from their peers, families and friends. They had ample evidence to support their claims, such as the notorious case of Robert Pickton, who was convicted in 2007 of murdering nearly 50 Vancouver prostitutes.
While many support this ruling, a vast and vocal group of individuals and advocates argue that it opens the floodgates for sex trafficking, community ruin and the victimization of women and girls. However, none of this has to happen, especially if Canadian legislators work closely with sex workers to develop policies that acknowledge adult prostitution as legitimate work.
In the mainstream media, prostitution is almost always conflated with sex trafficking. One only has to look at Nicholas Kristof’s pieces in The New York Times, for example, to learn that women and girls are kidnapped and forced into prostitution against their will. But not all prostitutes are victims. And the tendency to focus on trafficking has not led to policies that keep sex workers safe and healthy. Especially in the United States, the equation of prostitution with trafficking has led to more spending on law enforcement in order to arrest pimps, clients and traffickers. While few would argue against punishing traffickers, these strategies have also resulted in more arrests of sex workers themselves. Meanwhile, policies that would help to ensure sex workers’ health and safety and even help them exit the sex industry — such as affordable housing, living wages and accessible health care — are few and far between.
By listening to prostitutes with varied experiences, legislators could create more comprehensive policies. Yes, we should absolutely punish anyone who coerces someone into prostitution. We should also help those who want to leave prostitution. But what about the many sex workers who fall elsewhere on the spectrum? Prostitutes are actually a diverse group. They are women, men and transgender. They work indoors, outdoors, alone and with others. They do this part time or full time. Some have college degrees and others no high school diplomas. They represent a range of racial and ethnic groups.
This variety in working conditions affects their health and safety. The sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein has found that only 2 to 20 percent of prostitutes work on the street, but those who do disproportionately struggle with substance abuse and violence from police and clients. Those who work indoors or with others are far safer.
Moreover, my own research and that of others shows that sex workers actually have very different opinions about whether their profession should be legal. Some support complete decriminalization, while others believe it should remain a criminal offense. For those who believe the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision will create open-air sex markets and trafficking rings on every corner, this evidence should make them think again.
If policymakers want to make sex workers’ lives safer, there are many organizations they can learn from. Sex workers advocate for their rights through groups like the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Sex workers also help their peers. In my recent book, I discuss the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco and the California Prostitutes Education Project (CAL-PEP) in Oakland, two nonprofit organizations where sex workers provide occupational health and social services to each other. By hiring and training sex workers, they also help sex workers develop skills for work in the health care field. Canada has some excellent examples of its own, such as Stella in Montreal, the PACE Society in Vancouver, and Maggie’s in Toronto.
These organizations are effective because they view sex work as work. They do not require anyone to leave the sex industry in order to receive services, and they create community among this very marginalized population. If policymakers want to make sex workers’ lives safer, they should learn from organizations like these and welcome them to this year’s legislative hearings.
However, Canada’s current conservative government will likely restrict prostitutes from advocating for their rights. Indeed, Canada’s Justice Minister responded to the Bedford ruling by stating that he was concerned about the harms that flow from prostitution, and pundits have argued that measures should be taken to abolish prostitution instead. However, these responses merely amount to defenses of the status quo, and the status quo hurts prostitutes.
Every year on Dec. 17, sex worker rights advocates worldwide host events to “call attention to crimes committed against sex workers all over the globe.” And every year on Dec. 17, the number of names of deceased sex workers underscore the harm of anti-prostitution policies. This year, a mere three days after Dec. 17, the Canadian Supreme Court has taken an important step towards abolishing the legal conditions that create this violence. We should not roll back the clock.