God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee. – Calixa Lavallée (Robert Weir translation), “O Canada”
Those Americans who wish to understand the difference between decriminalization of prostitution and legalization of it need look no farther than our neighbor to the north. Decriminalization is based on the philosophy that since sex is a normal human behavior which is completely legal between consenting adults as long as the woman is allowed to hide her price or lie about it, it should also be legal when she honestly tells a man her price up front. Legalization, on the other hand, is based on the magical thinking that sex is somehow intrinsically different from all other human activity even when there is no chance of conception and must therefore be regulated in a way no other behavior is. Jurisdictions with legalized prostitution give officials (or in Nevada, rich people with political connections) the power to control women’s bodies and tell whores whom we can see, where we can see them, how we can communicate with them or each other and even how we can spend our money (depending on the jurisdiction). These laws are invariably arbitrary, unfair, punitive and Draconian and at their worst reduce prostitutes to state property under the control of government-sponsored pimps.
In Canada, prostitution has never actually been illegal, but because control freaks can’t simply let women alone a number of repressive laws have been enacted to criminalize virtually everything prostitutes need to do in order to practice our trade, including keeping one place in which to receive clients, “public communication for the purpose of prostitution” and “living off the avails of prostitution” (i.e. receiving a substantial portion of one’s support from a prostitute). These laws prevent hookers from working legally in their homes, advertising, hiring employees such as maids, secretaries or bodyguards, having roommates or supporting dependent adult family members such as university-age kids. Canadian prostitutes’ only legal choices are extremely dangerous ones, so just as most whores in Nevada prefer to work illegally due to the repressive prostitution laws in their state, so too do Canadian prostitutes. But as I reported in my column of September 29th, an Ontario judge recently struck down these laws as the dangerous tyranny they are. In that column I predicted that parliament would win a stay on the ruling so the politicians could think of some more insidious way to harass and persecute hookers, and that indeed occurred last week (as reported on the Paper Chase website of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law):
The Ontario Court of Appeal on Thursday (December 2nd) ruled that several prostitution-related laws struck down by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice would remain in effect until April 29th, pending an appeal. Justice Marc Rosenberg issued an extension of the stay requested by lawyers for the federal and Ontario governments to preserve the provisions that were invalidated by the lower court while the appeal process continues. The OSCJ ruled in September that provisions § 210, § 212 and § 213 of the Canadian Criminal Code, which prohibit the keeping of a “common bawdy house,” engaging in communications for the purpose of soliciting sex and living “on the avails” of the sex trade, were a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government argued that the judgment should be stayed until the court could conduct a full review of the decision, while the party challenging the laws argued that the stay would “perpetuate the law’s contribution to violence against a vulnerable population.” Rosenberg applied the RJR-MacDonald Inc. v. Canada test for granting a stay pending appeal, which requires the court to balance convenience and public interest considerations of the issue. He concluded that it is in the public interest that the judgment be stayed for a relatively short period to permit appellate review of the decision.
Although prostitution is legal in Canada, virtually all of the acts ancillary to exchanging sex for money are not. In 2007, the Sex Professionals of Canada initiated an application with the OSCJ challenging the three provisions overturned in September’s ruling on the grounds that they are inconsistent with the Charter. The challenge came on the heels of the trial of Robert Pickton, who was accused of murdering 26 women, mostly prostitutes, in the Vancouver area in the 1990s. Pickton was convicted of six counts of murder in late 2007.
Here’s a report on the predictably-disgusting reaction of Canadian politicians to news of the stay, courtesy of Xtra!, a Canadian Gay and Lesbian news site. As one might expect, the politicians claim that laws which endanger sex workers actually protect us from “crime”. But not, of course, crime perpetrated by the police, as discussed in this article on the SWOP Las Vegas website:
A report to be released today by Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist (POWER) claims that city police officers regularly assault, abuse and harass prostitutes and other sex workers; a few of those interviewed said they’d even been strip-searched by officers in public areas. The findings have prompted POWER to ask the Ontario Human Rights Commission to conduct a public inquiry into the Ottawa police’s “systemic discrimination” against sex workers.
In an 11-page letter to the rights commission, POWER says the Ottawa Police Service discriminates against sex workers on three prohibited grounds — sex, ethnicity and “perceived disability” and thus “creates tremendous physical and emotional harm” to individuals and fosters “prejudicial and harmful stereotypes” within the community at large. The release of the report and the call for a public inquiry comes as city police are facing heavy criticism for the abuse and unlawful strip search of Stacy Bonds as well as other incidents of alleged misconduct. Chris Bruckert, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa who co-authored the report, said Bonds’ experience “sounds a lot like what we’ve been hearing from streetbased sex workers.”
The report is based on interviews with 43 sex workers — 34 women, seven men and two transgender females — done between April 2009 and February 2010. Twenty-seven were streetbased workers, and the rest mostly worked as escorts in massage parlours. The report conceals their identities, making their accounts of police mistreatment impossible to verify, but Bruckert said she was “absolutely confident” their stories were reliable. 15 workers identified the police as their main challenge, an assessment based on their abuse of power, the report says. 16 of the street-based workers said they’d experienced police violence; one was allegedly beaten so badly by four officers that she lost sight in one eye, and another said police broke her arm. Others accused the police of sexual misconduct; one said an undercover officer grabbed her hand and “forcefully put it on his crotch,” and another spoke of an officer who had sex with a number of prostitutes. Three said they’d been strip-searched on public streets by male officers, and a number said they’d been sexually assaulted while under arrest. One said she was left to sit, naked, in a cell for 24 hours. Other incidences include illegal confinement, confiscation of property such as sleeping bags and condoms, and “starlight tours” — where police detain people, drive them to the country or suburbs and leave them there.
Inspector Tyrus Cameron, who oversees prostitution enforcement downtown, said that violence against sex workers is unacceptable, and he encouraged those who believe they’ve been abused to file complaints. But most workers don’t see that as a viable option; their most common complaint is harassment by police when they are clearly not soliciting clients. All the street-based workers spoke of police disrespect, and more than two-thirds recounted “public shaming rituals.” Cameron said the force doesn’t condone rude behavior, but claims that most street prostitutes are addicts who “don’t always behave rationally.” He agreed that officers routinely approach known prostitutes on the street to ask what they are doing. “Are we trying to dissuade people from going to them? Absolutely. We make no apologies for that.”
The report says discrimination against sex workers by the police and public is a product of “whore-phobia,” which casts them as dirty, immoral and hyper-sexualized people forced into sex work by addictions or mental illness. The police, the report notes, are in a position of power. “When they abuse that power and operate in relation to their own or societal biases and prejudices, the consequences for sex workers can be severe.”
This should all sound pretty familiar to my regular readers; I’ve written about it several times, most recently on November 16th. But it bears repeating as often as possible to combat those who claim that all police brutality toward hookers consists of “isolated incidents”, and to illustrate why legalization (as practiced in Canada, the UK and many other countries) is no better than criminalization. Only when our trade is decriminalized – that is, removed from police oversight to the same degree as other common professions – will these sorts of abuses stop.