Supreme Court Strikes Down Prostitution Laws

On December 20th, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that three current laws governing prostitution  (prohibiting keeping a bawdy house, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating for the purpose of prostitution) violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“’Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes,” wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin in the 9-0 decision that noted “it is not a crime in Canada to sell sex for money’ ” (CBC News, 2013, n.p.).

The Canadian government has one year to adjust the criminal code.

This ruling was the result of a challenge to federal laws launched by sex workers in Ontario in 2007. They argued that  current legislation made it impossible to earn their livelihood safely and with dignity. While prostitution itself is not illegal in Canada, the laws prohibiting related activities make it almost impossible for sex workers to avoid breaking the law. These laws made it illegal for sex workers to work together indoors and to hire bodyguards, infringed on their ability to properly assess clients, and made it difficult for them to take other kinds of precautions.

For more information about this case, please visit our Legal Context Page.

 

 

Nikki Thomas argues for decriminalization of sex work

On June 13, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada began to hear Canadian sex workers’ case challenging three Canadian laws pertaining to prostitution. To mark this important milestone, Nikki Thomas, Executive Director of Sex Professionals of Canada, wrote two powerful pieces about sex workers’ rights that summarize some of the information we are trying to convey through our video game.

In “Sex Workers Deserve to Have Their Voices Heard”, Thomas gives an overview of the major feminist divide concerning sex work. Some feminists view all sex workers as victims, and sex work itself as a form of violence against women. These feminists argue for assymetrical criminalization, where the purchase of sexual services would become illegal, but the selling of sexual services would remain legal, criminalizing the clients.

However, Thomas argues that this position is paradoxical to one of the core values of feminism- that all women should have the right to control what they do with their bodies. She goes on to explain that this “abolitionist” stance towards sex work undermines and devalues the agency of sex workers. Furthermore, she highlights that strategies to abolish sex work will only push the profession underground, leading to more exploitation, not less.

In “5 Reasons Criminalizing Sex Worker Clients Doesn’t Work”, Thomas expands on her critique of the “abolitionist” stance on sex work. Thomas explains why this approach would not eradicate sex work, but would in fact make sex work more dangerous. Clients would be less willing to share information about themselves, making it impossible for sex workers to adequately screen potential clients. Thomas also points out that while this approach has been adopted in Sweden, it has only exported the industry to neighboring countries, instead of decreasing demand. She highlights that clients would be less likely to report suspected exploitation or violence against sex workers out of fear of being arrested. Lastly, she argues that the “abolitionist” approach discriminates against both clients and sex workers by painting them as exploiters and victims.  Thomas sees decriminalization as the best way to improve working conditions for sex workers and eradicate exploitation.

Sex Work in Calgary: Fourth Location Report

We’re considering possible locations for gameplay: here’s the fourth.

The level of street sex work in Calgary has been rapidly decreasing (Platt, 2013).  In the last few years, the four main prostitution strolls in the city have diminished to two. In 2012, police received 370 prostitution-related calls, a 25% decrease from the year before. Police say that higher-priced sex workers have almost vanished from view, leaving only the most marginalized sex workers working the streets. Police believe that the internet has allowed for more sex workers to work indoors. However, this has not necessarily led to safer practices. Recruiting clients online has allowed pimps to hide underage prostitutes from police.  Furthermore, sex workers are more likely to work in isolation, and are sharing less information about bad dates.

Residential complaints and gentrification have led police to relocate strolls in the city in the past (Brannigan, 1994). For example, a popular stroll in the area of the National Hotel was relocated to Eight Avenue in the East Village. In 1994, this stroll was relocated again near Stampede Park due to new developments in the East Village. This relocation was met with a lot of opposition from residents.

Sex workers in Calgary have reported that the sex trade in the city is safer and more discrete than in other places they’ve worked (Samuel & Benjamin, 2013). The industry is dispersed across the city, which can pose a challenge to community organizations trying to outreach to sex workers.

Calgary police report that two thirds of the people they charge for communicating for the purpose of prostitution are men (Simpson, 2009). In the late 1980s, Calgary police began to specifically target customers (Brannigan, 1994).  While in 1987, there were almost no charges laid against customers, by 1993, 60% of charges involved customers. Around the same time, police also began to target pimps, recognizing that the communication arrests were not deterring prostitution. While “there is an 85-99% likelihood prostitution offenders will be charged by police”, police “often recommend alternative measures in their reports to the crown” (Simpson, 2009, p.13).

The communication law also led to a high number of arrests of teenage prostitutes (Brannigan, 1994). Recognizing that underage prostitution in Calgary was pervasive, police began to target underage sex workers in the 1980s to deter minors from entering the profession.  It is estimated that minors represent 10-12% of sex workers in Alberta, with 15.6 years being the average age of entering the sex trade in the province (TASCC, 2013). A study done by the United Way of Calgary found that these youth often will work for food, clothes, shelter or drugs instead of money, a form of the trade referred to as “survival sex” (Calgary Herald, 2007). Furthermore, pimps will often go to public places such as shopping malls to recruit young girls.  Malborough Mall was highlighted as a place where this regularly occurs. After interviewing 50 young sex workers, McIntyre (2001) found that 82% of her interviewees had experienced sexual abuse before entering the trade.

Calgary has a limited amount of police enforcement focused on prostitution. While Edmonton has 6 vice detectives, and Vancouver has 10, Calgary only has 2 vice department positions (Simpson 2009).  Calgary often uses loitering and public behavior municipal bylaws to target street sex workers, as well as the new vehicle seizure legislation.

165 Escorts and 19 Escort Agencies were licensed in Calgary in 2008 (Simpson, 2009). One escort agency estimated that college students represented half of their escorts. While over 2000 massage practitioners were granted licenses, police estimate that 2% of them were in fact given to disguised bawdy houses, representing up to 50 businesses. Based on police estimates, Brannigan (1994) writes that there are anywhere between 600-2000 sex workers working in Calgary in any given year.

Servants Anonymous Society (SAS) and the Shift Program are two of the only community organizations in Calgary that specifically service sex workers (Simpson, 2009).  While Shift works with both male and female sex workers currently working, as well as those exiting the profession, SAS exclusively focuses on helping women leave prostitution. Some sex workers have reported being frustrated by the fact that the services in Calgary seem female-focused, “feeling that programs for men were add-ons to services provided for women, rather than specialized services” (Samuel & Benjamin, 2013).

The level of street sex work in Calgary has been rapidly decreasing (Platt, 2013).  In the last few years, the four main prostitution strolls in the city have diminished to two. In 2012, police received 370 prostitution-related calls, a 25% decrease from the year before. Police say that higher-priced sex workers have almost vanished from view, leaving only the most marginalized sex workers working the streets. Police believe that the internet has allowed for more sex workers to work indoors. However, this has not necessarily led to safer practices. Recruiting clients online has allowed pimps to hide underage prostitutes from police.  Furthermore, sex workers are more likely to work in isolation, and are sharing less information about bad dates.

Residential complaints and gentrification have led police to relocate strolls in the city in the past (Brannigan, 1994). For example, a popular stroll in the area of the National Hotel was relocated to Eight Avenue in the East Village. In 1994, this stroll was relocated again near Stampede Park due to new developments in the East Village. This relocation was met with a lot of opposition from residents.

Calgary police have tried to reach out to prostitutes to encourage them to report crimes and to help them access services, distributing their contact information directly to sex workers on the street. Brannigan (1994) argues that the rise in charges against pimps has proved that this strategy has been effective, as these cases require cooperation from exploited sex workers. Simpson (2009) also found that the majority of sex workers she spoke to had positive interactions with police. However, Samuel and Benjamin (2013) reported that the majority of sex workers they interviewed had negative impressions of police, despite the fact that they did not all have direct interactions with them.

Based on police reports, Brannigan argues that there has been a clear rise in violence against sex workers in Calgary since the enactment of the communication law, but also notes a rise in violence against women generally in the city since then.  However, police only record whether a reported crime is committed against a sex worker if the victim discloses this information, which is not always the case (Howell, 2010).