Harlots Parlour

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Nobody cares about safety of sex workers, court hears

The arguments rumble on in Canada as sex workers battle the government and the forces of oppression in court. A selection of Christian groups and so called feminist colluded in court to deny human rights to sex workers. The monotheists argued; using terminology that would not have been out of place in the middle ages to justify the burning of heretics and witches, that the suffering of prostitutes is for their own good if society is to be saved. So called feminists joined this coalition of oppression arguing that murdered women and stigmatised women are acceptable if society is to be remodelled according to their definition of a “right” society where vile men are suitably admonished for having sexual thoughts. Women; they argued, never sell sex willingly but are always victims of men and men should be punished. They forget the fact that women buy sex and sell sex, men sell sex and buy sex and that that word consent is really what it is all about. Their fantasy of the victimised woman and man as the oppressor is as fantastical as the monotheists insistence that whores are all going to burn in hell. And we fool ourselves that society is progressing.

For sex workers the argument centres around labour rights. I understand this reasoning because sex work is work but sex work is more, sex work is the recognition of individual liberty over the tyranny of state/dogma and ideology. It is the ideology of freedom and that is what makes it dangerous to those who hate liberty, be they conservatives, socialists or monotheists. I fear that if the arguments from sex workers become trapped by the minute’ of the legalities of what is or is not labour then we may loose the more important argument which is about freedom.

Here is the article by Adrian Humphreys (Jun 16, 2011 – 10:33 PM ET) in Canada’s National Post “HERE”

TORONTO • Are Canada’s prostitution laws killing women or are they saving society from moral decay? Is it bad legislation that makes the sex trade dangerous or the depraved minds of men? Such disparate views on prostitution were put before a panel of judges deciding the fate of Canada’s prostitution laws Thursday.

From moral and ethical pleas to the stark nitty-gritty of street solicitation, the Court of Appeal for Ontario heard arguments from 19 groups as divergent as the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society and the Catholic Civil Rights League.

The thorny issue transcended traditional ideological divides, with conservative groups finding strange allies in feminist activists.

Each of the organizations were granted intervener status, allowing them to make submissions in the landmark case that could decriminalize running a brothel, communicating for the purpose of prostitution and living on the avails of prostitution.

The government is appealing a lower court ruling last fall that struck down the three anti-prostitution provisions of the Criminal Code.

This challenge was raised by three sex trade workers who argue the laws prevent them from taking basic safety precautions, such as hiring a bodyguard, working indoors or spending time assessing potential clients.

The large number of intervener groups speaks to the passion over, and importance of, the emotional issue.

Prostitution is immoral and should be eradicated through strict laws, even if that leaves sex trade workers vulnerable to attack, argued Ranjan Agarwal, a lawyer representing the Christian Legal Fellowship, Catholic Rights League and REAL Women of Canada.

“Parliament intended to eradicate prostitution” by enacting these laws because it is “an attack on the fundamental values of modern Canadian society,” he said.

But, asked Justice David Doherty, what if that meant sex workers die as a result, wouldn’t that be harm out of proportion from the intended good?

No, Mr. Agarwal said, such an outcome is a “sad side effect,” and it was better for Parliament to “send a signal” to anyone thinking of entering the sex trade that there was great risk involved. His stance caused a ripple of derision from several sex workers observing the proceedings.

“Canadians have good reason to abhor prostitution and they have every reason and justification to discourage people from engaging in the sex-trade, either as sex workers, customers, pimps and madams or as service-providers,” the groups told the court.

Contrasting sharply with that view was a frank portrayal of how the law interferes with sex workers’ ability to protect themselves, making it a constitutional infraction.

Cynthia Petersen, a lawyer representing Maggie’s, a Toronto sex workers group, and POWER, an Ottawa sex worker rights group, argued the laws need to be repealed to save lives.

Prohibiting communication for the purposes of prostitution may have been designed to scoot unseemly solicitation out of sight, but it prevents sex workers from discussing with customers what sex work they are willing or unwilling to offer before they are alone and isolated, which would make prostitutes safer, she said.

Whether a prostitute insists on condom use or will allow intercourse or anal sex or photography or how many customers will be participating are all relevant discussions, she said.

Talking about how a worker will perform the labour, a worker’s personal boundaries and a client’s expectations are normal in any other business transaction.

Prostitutes are exempted from this, she said, “because sex work is not valued by society. Sex workers are not valued by society. To put it bluntly, nobody cares. Nobody cares about their safety. Certainly not the state.”

Katrina Pacey, representing a coalition of the PACE Society, Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society and Pivot Legal Society, struck a similar stance, saying the current legislative regime requires prostitutes to fear that “every night they go to work may be their last.”

She said many of the sex trade workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, one of Canada’s poorest postal codes, are involved in the sex trade because they find no other way to meet their basic needs.

“I recognize,” she said, “that striking down these laws is not the ultimate answer,” she said, but it was an important step.

A coalition of feminist and progressive groups, however, stood alongside the conservative Christian organizations in supporting the current laws, although for different reasons.

Janine Benedet, lawyer arguing on behalf of the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, comprised of seven women’s groups, including the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, argued the laws should be kept so men can be penalized for victimizing women.

“We feel comfortable referring to prostitution as the world’s oldest profession but not as the world’s oldest men’s pastime,” said Ms. Benedet.

“Prostitution itself is harmful to women. The danger to women’s security is a function not of the laws constraining prostitution, but of the actions of men who demand the sale of women’s bodies. It would be illogical and contrary to principles of fundamental justice to decriminalize men’s prostitution of women in order to protect women from those same men,” court was told.

Addressing arguments that prostitutes would be safer if they were allowed to work in homes or brothels, she said: “It is not locations that kills women. They are not killed by apartment or houses, they are killed by johns and pimps.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association independently argued against the laws. The national branch of the organization told court the laws “are unconstitutional as they materially contribute to the decreased personal security of persons engaged in prostitution in Canada.”

Two HIV/AIDS groups supported repealing the laws, saying they interfered with negotiating safer sex, including condom use.

Justice Doherty thanked the interveners for their thoughtful remarks, saying the arguments were “compelling” and represented “important interests.”

On Friday, the court will decide whether to impose an injunction to keep the current prostitution laws in effect until the judges render their decision or allow them to lapse immediately.

There was a general consensus from counsel that the laws should remain while the judges deliberate.

National Post


About Douglas Fox

9 comments on “Nobody cares about safety of sex workers, court hears

  1. Maggie McNeill
    20 June, 2011

    Actually, I suspect the prohibitionists are their own worst enemies; rhetoric like “it’s OK if individuals die so our view of what’s right can prevail” sound good to fanatics, but not to modern judges. If the judges reinstate the laws, it will be in spite of the Christian and feminist arguments rather than because of them.

    • Mademoiselle B.
      22 June, 2011

      To me it seems like at least one of the judges wasn’t buying it:


      First up was Ranjan Agarwal, a lawyer representing a coalition of conservative and religious groups who want the court to reverse Justice Susan Himel’s decision from last year that found Criminal Code prohibitions on bawdy houses and prostitution-related activities unconstitutional.

      “Most reasonable people consider prostitution to be immoral,” offered Agarwal, whose clients include the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Conservative Legal Fellowship and REAL Women Canada.

      “You’re losing me,” Justice Marc Rosenberg interrupted. “Why is this relevant?”

      Parliament chose to criminalize activities associated with prostitution because it had determined prostitution was immoral, Agarwal replied.

      While the physical risks prostitutes may face as a result of not being able to work in brothels with security staff is a “sad side effect” of the law, the legislation still serves the valid purpose of ridding Canadian society of a morally abhorrent practice, he argued.

      “Are you somehow saying that could be justified by the criminal objective of trying to eradicate prostitution . . . . By saying we eradicated prostitution at the cost of ‘x’ number of lives?” the judge asked.

      “You’re dealing with complex considerations,” Agarwal responded.

      Source: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1010048–risk-to-sex-workers-may-be-justified-court-told?bn=1

  2. Douglas Fox
    20 June, 2011

    Well lets hope that the judges have sense and that justice prevails. Although if the judges do do the right thing are the authorities ready to deal with the consequences of the effective decriminalisation of sex work? In New Zealand this was all thought out before it happened and I am not sure that degree of thought has taken place in Canada. It certainly hasn’t in the UK. Also is the New Zealand model right for Canada? There are certainly aspects of the legislation that I would be concerned about if the UK were suddenly to decriminalise sex work tomorrow.

    I hope sex workers succeed and that the voices of oppression are shown the door but in my heart of hearts I worry. I think arguing labour rights as the primary tactic is not the strongest argument, although I accept it is probably easier in a legal sense. Also the emphasis on street work. The majority of sex workers should come first and they are indoor sex workers. I know its unfashionable in s.w. rights circles to argue this but street workers right should evolve as a result of decriminalisation for all sex workers and their issues which are often especially specific should not be the forefront of the argument from our side. This is not to say that street sex work is not important but they are a tiny sector of the sex worker community yet they demand the most attention from both sides of the argument and polorise the debate especially with the general public who should be our allies. They also alienate so many sex workers from involvement within the sex worker rights movement because they feel excluded by a movement which they pervceive to concentrate on the issues of a minority while ignoring the majority.

  3. Wendy
    21 June, 2011

    The problem with arguing it from a “freedom” perspective is that is not necessarily relevant to survival sex workers, who are in the industry out of economic necessity and not a real free choice. And it’s very, very easy for abolitionists to exploit that weakness in the argument. In the abortion rights movement, working-class women and women of colour have battled for years to get the “leadership” to acknowledge the same issue and stop portraying it as simply a question of “right to choose”, which not everyone has the luxury of. If the battle isn’t one for the rights of all sex workers and not merely those sex workers who are genuinely engaging in an expression of their sexual freedom then it cannot be a freedom-centred argument or it will leave a significant (and very marginalised) segment out.

  4. Douglas Fox
    21 June, 2011

    But we all work our of economic necessity. Very few in society have the luxury of choosing not to work. I understand your argument but my problem is that both sides, anti and pro sex work argue from the same perspective using the same tiny demographic of sex work experience to justify themselves. There is I am sorry to say a collusion of middle class patronising attitudes toward those least able to tell them to stop from both sides of this debate.

    Because your choices are limited does not mean that you do not have choice. Millions of poor people choose not to sell sex, millions of migrants choose not to sell sex and I guess millions of drug users also choose not to sell sex. Unless some one holds a gun to your head then you do have choices even if they are limited.

    The danger with concentrating the argument solely on labour rights is that you are arguing on terms set by our enemy. They set the language and the create environmentment. You are arguing against a culture ingrained through dogma even within the legal system that idealises sex either as a virtue or demonises it as dangerous. Putting labour rights at the centre of the argument is therefore demanding a lot from people, even judges, but especially politicians and the media, who have a vested interest in maintaining the illusions society has about sex. I think labour rights are important and I would never ignore the issues around street work but the argument for me is always about the basic human right of free will and choice and about ownership of ones body. Then the argument has to be about justice and safety and then labour rights.

    I am working on a piece for Harlots that deal with this topic….just finding tme to finish it 🙂

  5. Douglas Fox
    21 June, 2011

    I have edited my first comment. Sorry but my computer for some reason seems to miss out whole sentences sometimes and misspell words….honestly its not the wine 🙂

  6. Mademoiselle B.
    22 June, 2011

    What it comes down to is that prostitution itself is legal so it really makes no sense to have laws that endanger sex workers. Morality has absolutely nothing to do with it and those groups arguing against striking these laws are really saying they’re so opposed to prostitution they would prefer to make a point over sex workers being safe. It’s a completely self serving move and that I can’t imagine that’s lost on the judges.

    Since prostitution is currently legal and that’s not going to be affected by whatever decision they come back with, their opinion on its immorality / morality is irrelevant, isn’t it. The issue is whether or not these laws unjustly endanger sex workers when they are engaging in prostitution, which is legal. I think these interests groups, by arguing to keep things the way they are with arguments about prostitution itself and not the effects of the laws in question make it clear they they are not the least bit concerned with sex workers, their safety or their working conditions,

    This is especially obvious for the so-called feminist groups who are obsessed with the Swedish model. To me it makes no sense because shouldn’t they be in favor of striking those laws which criminalize sex workers, those whom they claim are the victims? Isn’t the Swedish model all about decriminalizing the poor “victims” while criminalizing the demand? So why are they opposed to this? I’m not sure I understand what they’re doing here.

    I think the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the initial judgement by the lower court. I have a feeling that’s when these groups might be taken seriously and unfortunately be more successful in pushing their agenda. Politically this is just about the worse possible time to have our government make decisions in regards to prostitution. Parliament is full of Christians – majority government in power is led by an Evangelical Christian (our PM, Stephen Harper)….

    From what I understand, if the Supreme Court upholds the previous judgement, it’s highly unlikely that the government will simply accept the Supreme Court decision to strike the laws and decriminalize prostitution completely (they would not have filed an appeal to begin with if that was an option).

    That leaves two possible outcomes:

    They will either decide to make prostitution explicitly illegal by creating new laws making prostitution illegal (which would solve the issues addressed in the current case; if prostitution is illegal then sex workers cannot expect safe conditions).

    The other option at that point will be to only criminalize demand and copy the Swedish model. (This is why I would have thought the rad fems would have instead supported the striking down of the laws now and then pushed for government to pass new laws that would criminalize the men. So what the hell are they doing?)

    Anyway, to me, both options are not only pretty scary but also very likely – considering the current government, their track record and the way they operate….

  7. Wendy
    22 June, 2011

    I agree that we all have choices, but some of us have fewer than others. For men and women engaged in survival sex the economic factor may far outweigh the sexual freedom factor and I think it is important that our arguments acknowledge that fact – because the abolitionists’ arguments certainly will, and they are likely to prevail if they are seen to be addressing it while we are ignoring it.

    Putting labour rights at the centre of the argument is therefore demanding a lot from people, even judges, but especially politicians and the media, who have a vested interest in maintaining the illusions society has about sex.

    I’m not sure how that’s more true for the labour rights argument than it is for the sexual freedom argument. People who already find it impossible to believe that a sex worker might enjoy what they do don’t change their minds just because some sex workers testify that they enjoy what they do. They will insist you’re the minority, you have Stockholm Syndrome, you’re being put up to it by your pimp. You really cannot convince these people otherwise. Evidence that criminalisation puts the lives and health of sex workers in danger has more persuasive power with them.

  8. Pingback: The year in perspective « www.harlotsparlour.com

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This entry was posted on 20 June, 2011 by in Uncategorized.
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