New prostitution law should not target women, advocates say

Coalition of women's groups says no element of proposed new prostitution law should criminalize prostitutes themselves

OTTAWA – No element of a proposed new prostitution law should criminalize prostitutes themselves, a coalition of women’s groups said Wednesday.

An amendment to Bill C-36 which would criminalize prostitution near daycares, schools or playgrounds should be removed, they argued ahead of testimony at the Senate committee examining the bill.

“The brutal forces of poverty, racism and inequality effectively negate women’s consent to engage in prostitution by forcing them into it in the first place,” Lisa Steacy of the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, said at a news conference Wednesday.

“And we are here to insist that the Senate do what Parliament did not and put forward an amendment that completely removes the parts of the law that would allow the criminalization of prostituted women in some locations.”

The amendment was introduced by the House of Commons earlier this summer after concerns the original provision was too vague to survive a charter challenge.

While the bill generally gives prostitutes immunity from prosecution, the original text had criminalized the selling of sex in areas in areas where children were expected to be present.

Steacy was part of a number of women’s groups who said Wednesday they generally support the bill as it takes the major step forward of recognizing the violence inflicted on prostitutes at the hands of pimps and clients.

“These pimps and johns are the problem,” said Bridget Perrier, a First Nations educator. “They are the ones who abuse and in some cases kill.

“Our women are viewed as sacred and are not born to be used and sold for men’s sexual needs. We are not commodities.”

But leaving in a provision that criminalizes any element of prostitution raises the possibility that it’s not the pimps and customers who will be arrested, Steacy said.

“One of the things that makes men feel that they can get away with violence against women, even though it’s a crime the consequences don’t happen,” she said.

“Basically, 99 per cent of rapes go unpunished by the criminal justice system and we definitely don’t want to see the same thing happen with the prostitution-related offences.”

The proposed law is the government’s answer to a Supreme Court decision last year that found the existing laws violated the charter rights of sex workers because it placed them in peril.

The government says the new bill addresses the high court’s concerns because it essentially allows prostitutes to work freely — including hiring protection and starting up brothels — as long as they’re doing it of their own free will.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay told senators Tuesday that he believed it will also give prostitutes the confidence to report incidences of violence to police as the workers themselves won’t need to be afraid of getting arrested.

But others testifying before the Senate on Wednesday questioned that assumption, raising again the issue of the constitutionality of the bill.

“Providing this selective immunity to sellers of sex versus the buyers is not going to, in my view, protect sex workers from harm,” said Leo Russomanno of the Criminal Lawyer’s Association.

He suggested that the new bill does not give prostitutes the protection that the Supreme Court ruled they ought to have under the law.

MacKay has said he expects the bill will be challenged in court, but believes it will pass constitutional muster.