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.