Canadian sex workers win decriminalization

The High Court in Ontario, Canada, yesterday abolished the laws banning street soliciting (communicating for the purposes of prostitution), working together from premises (bawdy house) and living off the avails of prostitution as they make sex workers more vulnerable to violence.  The decision was a result of a legal challenge brought by three sex workers who argued that the laws endangered their health and forced them into unsafe working conditions.  It is a victory for women and sex workers everywhere who have been campaigning for decriminalization on grounds of health and safety.

Ontario Judge Susan Himel concluded that the laws violated the constitution which guarantees “the rights to life, liberty and safety’.  She said: “I find that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public,” . . . .”These laws, individually and together, force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person as protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Celebrating after the case the three women who brought the case commented: “Sex workers can now pick up the phone and call the police to report a client who has mistreated them . . . the ruling would allow sex workers to set up unions, have health and safety standards, hire bodyguards, and pay income tax.”

The US PROStitutes Collective and our sister organisation the English Collective of Prostitutes are also celebrating.  We have had a long association with sex workers in Canada from the 1970s.  We are encouraged by this victory.  New Zealand, which decriminalised in 2003, and now Canada are setting an example for women’s rights and safety.

The Ontario court heard evidence that over the past couple of decades, about 300 sex workers working on the street have disappeared or been murdered in Canada, including 26 women murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton.  Across the US, serial killings and murders of sex workers take place routinely, remain a low police priority and are barely reported such as in Atlantic City, Chicago, New Orleans and more.  It was decades before the Seattle Green River murderer was caught; similarly for the South Side Slayer killing Black women in LA. Demands for violence against sex workers to be prioritized have led to an increasing public understanding that criminalization undermines safety.

But arrests and prosecutions for soliciting and other prostitution-related offenses continue.  Hundreds of women face criminal conviction despite evidence that a criminal record is the biggest obstacle to sex workers being able to leave prostitution.  As the economy worsens, the “tough job market” in the US is prompting higher numbers of women to go into the sex industry, according to a 2009 Associated Press article.  With benefit cuts, debt, unemployment and homelessness increasing why are women being persecuted for trying to survive?

The 2008 voter initiative “Proposition K” which called for safety and protection through decriminalization showed the strength of public feeling on this issue.  It won 41% of the ballot vote in San Francisco.

It’s time for US politicians to follow Canada’s courageous step and do the right thing.

US PROStitutes Collective    415 626-4114

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