safety for Ontario’s sex workers?

The Ontario Court of Appeals made a momentous decision last week that has the potential to positively impact the lives of some of the most vulnerable members of Canadian society—sex workers. This decision overruled some of the laws that made activities surrounding prostitution illegal. By doing so, sex workers have been given an increased opportunity to meaningfully participate in the Canadian economy and are expected to have greater protection from assault, sexual assault, and murder.

The decision saw the following changes made:

  • Ontario sex workers will now be able to hire drivers and bodyguards and work indoors in organized brothels or “bawdy houses”.
  • In non-exploitative circumstances, sex workers are now legally able to live off their earnings.

Despite these victories, it is important to remain critical of the true impact this decision will have on the safety of sex workers. What this decision did not do was overturn the communication law that prohibits sex workers from openly soliciting clients in public. This is a striking blow to the protection of street level sex workers who are often the most vulnerable of all.

What people might not realize is that the majority of sex workers are arrested under the communication law so they will continue to face criminalization. Even still, this means that sex workers are not adequately protected from acts of violence. As a result of the communication law, sex workers are forced to conduct negotiations with clients quickly so that they are not discovered by the police. However, the initial negotiation is vital in allowing sex workers the opportunity to assess a client and the risk of danger. Without adequate time to negotiate, sex workers are also prevented from having important conversations with customers outlining what acts they are willing or unwilling to offer and what they charge before they are alone and isolated. This can include whether a sex worker insists on condom use and if acts such as anal sex for instance are permitted. As such, sex workers are pushed to more secluded and dangerous areas to avoid police crackdowns and are left increasingly susceptible to violence and abuse from predators like Robert Picton.

Perhaps most importantly, what these changes to the law will not do is remove the stigma surrounding sex workers, and recognize sex work as a legitimate profession in the eyes of some citizens. Discrimination is an obstacle all sex workers encounter. For instance, income from prostitution that was previously deemed unlawful presented challenges for sex workers when trying to access housing, medical care, and seek financial assistance through a loan, credit or insurance.

While this decision effectively took a big step forward by recognizing sex workers as human beings, deserving of dignity and protection, there is a long battle ahead to get all citizens nationwide to come to this realization as well.

Personal opinions surrounding the morality of sex work aside, I should hope that a general consensus could be reached proclaiming that all people are worthy of protection from violence and have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. Criminalizing sex work isolates and stigmatizes sex workers and generates the idea that they are somehow undeserving of protection under the law as a result of their employment choices. Social stigma surrounding sex workers must be eliminated. Sex workers can no longer be seen as immoral or less than human. The dignity inherent in all people must prevail, with all people being treated fairly under the law.

This decision, while only binding in Ontario, will undoubtedly spark similar changes across other provinces. If the decision goes to the Supreme Court of Canada, it will be applied countrywide. Thus, it is very important that those with the power to make important decisions act in favour of sex workers and grant them full protection under the law. The hope is that one day sex work will finally fully be regarded as a legitimate profession and that sex workers will receive the respect and protection they require and deserve.


10 thoughts on “safety for Ontario’s sex workers?

  1. I feel that you have made a very good point in this post. Although this is a big step for sex workers there are still many obstacles and dangers that they face in their profession. This will indeed set a precedent and will hopefully result in positive change for sex workers throughout the country. This may even spark a change in social stigma surrounding sex workers. I do feel that although danger and stigma still surround this profession it is a positive step forward for sex workers!

  2. Sex work has long been touted as the world’s oldest profession, yet as you mention the stigma that currently surrounds sex workers has not even begun to cease. The ruling by the Supreior Court, I agree, was a landmark decision but I fear this will do nothing to realistically protect sex workers and only increase the stigma that surrounds them. People are now talking about sex work and sex workers in an unprecedented way and unfortunately most do not see this as a viable profession in need of protection which if the government has their way, will only serve to further criminalize them. Should prostitutes not be afforded the same rights and protections as other sex workers (strippers, escorts and porn stars)?The sex work hierarchy needs to be abolished and all sex workers protected from violence and danger. I hope, if nothing else, this ruling will provide society with a serious opportunity for reflection and investigation into why we perpetuate such a stigma around street prostitutes and not other forms of sex work. Finally, along with you I hope that this sparks a national movement but I have my doubts that such ideas will take root in more Conservative provinces, particularly out west. For the sake of the human rights and protections we all claim to uphold, I hope I am wrong.

  3. While I’m not sure that what’s been done really achieves it, I agree: “all people are worthy of protection from violence and have the right to be treated with dignity and respect”.

  4. I think that the movement for developing some sort of protection for the sex workers was a right step in the right direction however it is still not effective. Since sex workers are not technically considered a profession who in their right mind would help protect them? We all have predisposed assumptions on the profession of sex workers and i still so believe law or no law that many will still shy away from helping them. I believe that the government should make an effort in destroying the stigmatic label that sex work isn’t profession or acceptable in a sense some truly believe its a valued profession. There needs to be a great awareness and desensitization to explain to the public why it is work. IT is only then that these laws of protection could be helpful. In my opinion i still feel that there is a long way to go to make that positive shift and this simply is too minor of a dent in this direction.

  5. I personally think this is a great step for Canada; a place where every person is supposed to have the same rights and freedoms as everyone else. Unfortunately there are a number of Canadians who will disagree and will argue that prostitution is wrong and this decision by government is ultimately supporting prostitution.
    There are always going to be pros and cons to every decision, however I think this is a big step for Canada.

  6. It seems there will always be some people who stigmatize others based on some moral principle. Rather than be discouraged by this, let it motivate us to continue to fight for what is right…that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Violence against women continues to affect approximately 1 in 4 women in North America and even higher percentages in some third world countries. These are our sisters, daughters, mothers, friends. Sex trade workers are definitely one of the most vulnerable groups of women who deserve protection like anyone else. This is a big step in the right direction. Let’s keep moving forward for women everywhere.

  7. I think it’s great that safety precautions are in place for sex workers. Everyone should have the right to be safe and to be treated with dignity and respect. That said, prostitution has been a long standing “profession” – no matter how illegal is it, it’s still happening and if people chose to be sex workers or to solicit sex workers, I think safety should be on both sides. If ever made legal, some precautions need to be put into place for all. For example, regular testing for STD’s and such should be a must, including sex workers ensuring that safe sex is practiced at all times! Next, if sex trade workers ‘profession’ becomes legal – then they should also be forced to pay taxes like other professionals!

  8. Great post Heather! I haven’t been keeping up on this law so I don’t know much about it, but do you think that having legal brothels/brawdy houses will make sex workers more vulnerable to pimping?

    Also, in the fall I heard rumours of Toronto considering having something similar to the Red Light District – do you know anything about this? Do you think that localizing sex workers to one area would help to ensure their safety, or would it harm other businesses in the area?

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