Canadian Supreme Court Strikes Down Prostitution Laws

Legalizing-Prostitution-Laws-in-CanadaCanadian sex workers have cause to celebrate – on December 20, 2013, the Canadian Supreme Court struck down prostitution laws. Sex workers in Canada could already enjoy the fact that their chosen profession wasn’t technically illegal, but unfortunately a number of prostitution-related laws made it essentially impossible to practice – or at least impossible to practice safely.

Specifically, when the Canadian Supreme Court struck down prostitution laws, it was three particular prostitution-related laws that the case targeted.

  • Firstly, brothels were illegal, which drove sex workers out on the streets or forced them to bring would-be clients into their homes without the benefit of a brothel full of back-up.
  • Secondly, it was illegal to live on the “avails” of prostitution. In other words, nobody else could earn any money other than the sex worker herself – and so bodyguards and drivers became just as illegal as exploitative pimps.
  • Thirdly, it was illegal to communicate about selling sex in public, which essentially made prostitution illegal.

The case was brought by sex worker Amy Lebovitch, former dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, and retired sex worker Valerie Scott. The last time the Supreme Court heard a case about the constitutionality of these sex work laws was over 20 years ago, but as Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada and many in the media pointed out, much has changed since then.

One of the major changes that McLachlin and others are referring to is the serial killer Robert Pickton. Between 1983 and 2002, British Columbian pig farmer Robert Pickton killed somewhere between 6 and 49 women, most of whom were sex workers. Although he was only convicted of six murder charges, another 20 murder charges were stayed in 2010 after he’d already been given the longest sentence Canadian courts can give – 25 to life. However, the possible body count is as high as 49 because that was the total he confessed to killing when talking to an undercover detective posing as his cellmate. The Pickton case highlighted the needed to improve safety for sex workers by changing these three specific laws because at the height of the Pickton murders, one brothel that had served as a safehouse was closed down due to legal problems.

When the Canadian Supreme Court struck down prostitution laws, the trio of sex workers who brought the case to the Supreme Court celebrated with whoops and cheers. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Katrina Pacey, referred to the decision as “an unbelievably important day for the sex workers but also for human rights.” In a similarly celebratory vein, Vancouver sex worker advocate Lorna Bird said, “All my sisters out there are now going to be safe.”

Unfortunately, sex workers in Canada may or may not be safe in the long-term. The Supreme Court’s decision actually gives Parliament a one-year period to craft other laws to replace them. Potentially the other laws could be stricter than the ones the court just struck down. On the other hand though, if Parliament doesn’t redraft the law during the coming year, then brothels, profiting off the avails of sex work, and communicating in public about exchanging sex for money will all be completely legal. In the meantime, some municipalities will be continuing to prosecute prostitution-related offenses, but many won’t.

Here’s to hoping they won’t!

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