VANCOUVER – A coalition of groups preparing to intervene in a Supreme Court of Canada hearing into the future of this country’s prostitution laws is advocating for a “third way” that would ensure sex workers aren’t turned into criminals while ensuring johns and pimps can still be prosecuted for buying and selling women and girls.
The Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution — which includes a number of organizations including the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the Vancouver-based Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter — is among more than a dozen interveners in a hearing scheduled for June 13.
The hearing stems from an Ontario Court of Appeal decision that struck down the Criminal Code ban on bawdy houses last year because the law puts sex workers in danger by forcing them to work outside.
The case has revealed deep divisions among organizations that work with and advocate for the women — often poor, drug addicted, and in many cases trafficked from outside Canada — working in the sex trade. Some groups are advocating for a form of legalization, while others insist prostitution must remain against the law.
“There is a third way,” Janine Benedet, the coalition’s lawyer, told a news conference in Vancouver on Wednesday.
“There is something besides simply criminalizing everyone involved in prostitution — including women — and decriminalization and legalizing the sex trade so men are free to buy women at will.”
The group will urge the court to craft a decision that removes criminal sanctions for women involved in the sex trade but continues to target pimps and johns.
Benedet said prostitution is inherently a form of discrimination and exploitation, and she argues the federal government has obligations under both the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international law to keep prostitution illegal.
She also rejected the assertion that moving prostitution inside would make sex workers safer. She said prostitutes who work indoors are still victims of violence, and she argued many women would continue to work on the streets.
Benedet acknowledged Canada already has laws that apply to pimps and johns, but she said they are not enforced.
“Existing laws are very seldom enforced on johns, and women are far more likely to be arrested for prostitution,” said Benedet, who also teaches law at the University of British Columbia.
“There needs to be some kind of serious response that says, ‘We really do mean it, it really is not acceptable to buy women for sex.’ Demand needs to be curbed.”
The Ontario court case involved three women — retired dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, former prostitute Valerie Scott and Vancouver sex worker Amy Lebovitch — who argued the laws related to prostitution violate the charter.
Prostitution itself is not illegal in Canada, though many of the key activities are banned under the three sections of the Criminal Code.
The Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the section that forbids brothels, but it upheld a ban on communication for the purposes of prostitution, which effectively makes street prostitution illegal.
The court also limited the section prohibiting living off the avails of prostitution to exclude people such as a sex worker’s bodyguard, accountant or receptionist. It said the provision should only apply “in circumstances of exploitation.”
Alan Young, the lawyer who represented the women in the Ontario case, said the arguments from the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution are premature.
Young said his main focus is convincing the court the law violates the charter and should be struck down. The time to debate what should happen next, he said, is after such a decision.
“It would be an argument much better presented to Parliament,” Young said in an interview Wednesday.
“What I think these interveners should realize is that actually supporting the invalidation we’re seeking is the only way they could achieve the result of moving Canada in that direction.”
For the same reasons, Young said he hasn’t taken a formal position in court about what the law should look like, though he acknowledged his clients have expressed strong opinions on the matter. His clients have publicly advocated for legalized prostitution.
“Obviously, (what might happen if the law is struck down) will be taken into account, but it can’t govern court’s decision,” he said.
“Something is either constitutional or not.”