Canadian Sex Workers Challenge Criminal Code

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Amy LebovitchVANCOUVER, Canada (WOMENSENEWS)–Amy Lebovitch has been a sex worker for roughly 12 years. She’s offered sex for money on the streets of Montreal. She’s worked for a proprietor of an illegal brothel. And now, she quietly plies her trade from her Vancouver home.

Working indoors allows her to screen her clients over the phone or Internet before meeting them, instead of furtively negotiating deals in strangers’ cars, said Lebovitch, 30. It also offers her peace of mind to work in a familiar environment.

But the sense of security is relative, she said.

Although she now feels reasonably protected from the threat of violence she encountered on the streets, she worries that at any time authorities could charge her under a Canadian law that prohibits keeping a bawdy house and could seize her bank accounts and take away her possessions.

"Although I say, ‘yes I feel safe,’ there’s another side to it, which is I don’t feel safe (from) the police," she said, noting that she knows of many sex workers who have been charged under the country’s prostitution laws. "It’s very scary to think that you’re not hurting anyone, you’re working, you’re making money . . . and in an instant, your life can be turned upside down."

Arguing for decriminalization, Lebovitch, Terri-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott, two other sex workers, have brought their complaints before the courts.

In October, they appeared at the Superior Court of Ontario to challenge sections of the country’s criminal laws that they say violate their constitutionally protected right to liberty and security. The sections in question prohibit keeping a bawdy house, soliciting sexual services in a public place and living off the proceeds of prostitution. The women are challenging all three sections.

They expect a court ruling in mid-2010.

Associated Activities Illegal

In the early 1980s, Canada’s Ministry of Justice established a special committee to examine strategies to deal with prostitution. The committee rejected outright criminalization of prostitution because it concluded such a measure would lack public support, be nearly impossible to enforce and would "apply a narrow moral view by way of criminal sanction," according to government documents.

While there are no laws prohibiting the exchange of sex for money in Canada, most activities associated with prostitution are illegal, making it impractical to work within the law, the three women said.

That means sex workers are prohibited from taking measures to protect their safety, such as working indoors, even though the law drives them off the streets, Lebovitch said.

Because they can’t be seen in the open, those working outdoors are forced to conduct business in secluded and dangerous places, she argued. It also means sex workers are barred from working in cooperatives and hiring private security.

Through their years of experience, the three women found the "laws were creating a lot of violence and a lot of deaths to ourselves and our colleagues," Lebovitch said.

The best known case of violence against sex workers in Canada is that of Vancouver’s Robert Pickton, who was found guilty in 2007 for the murders of six women and is awaiting trial for the deaths of 20 others.

Lebovitch’s colleague and friend was also murdered in Ontario more than a year ago, she said. She does not know whether a suspect was found.

"I don’t believe that sex work is inherently dangerous," Lebovitch said. "It is the laws, the stigma (that are harmful)."

Others Oppose Decriminalization

Gwendolyn Landolt, national vice president of the Ottawa-based advocacy group REAL Women of Canada, which pushes to make prostitution itself illegal, disagrees.

Her organization, along with the Christian Legal Fellowship and Catholic Civil Rights League, submitted arguments to the court against Lebovitch’s constitutional challenge, arguing that existing laws are "designed to protect the dignity of victims of prostitution" and that morality is the cornerstone of law.

Decriminalization does nothing to protect sex workers, but instead opens the doors for human trafficking and further exploitation, Landolt said.

"All it does is increase prostitution and it endangers women because far more women are out on the streets," she said. "They say that women are safe in brothels, but that’s ludicrous. They’re not safe there anymore than they are in the streets. It’s just not a safe thing to do."

More effort must be made to help sex workers get out of the trade, since the majority does not wish to be in it, Landolt said.

Local media reported that the Ontario and federal attorney generals offered similar arguments to the court in favor of the existing laws.

"The global experience is prostitution remains dangerous regardless of the legal regime," Gail Sinclair, a lawyer for the federal attorney general, told the court.

Lebovitch, however, said sex work is much the same as any other occupation. She said she chooses to do it because she enjoys being able to work for herself and to earn money.

Sex work allowed her to pay for university, where she earned a degree in social work.

Lebovitch said she expects the attorney generals to appeal if the sex workers win their court case. If that happens, or if the court does not rule in their favor, Lebovitch said she’s prepared for a long fight.

"I think people are somehow fearful of sex work," she said. "But what we fail to see is that there is a really bad situation going on right now. There are a lot of my colleagues being raped and murdered and the laws are not helping."

Wency Leung is a freelance writer in Vancouver.

For more information:

Sex Professionals of Canada

3 thoughts on “Canadian Sex Workers Challenge Criminal Code

  1. Quite aside from the moral issues, prostitution acceptance does increase sex trafficking, the disappearance of children for sex slave trade, pressure to teens and younger to sell themselves for sex, to take drugs, thus becoming dependent upon a pusher, and the encouragement of violence against women of all ages. It is not a ‘profession’; women struggle for years to safely remove themselves from this ‘trade’, and often only can do so when they are not very ‘sale-able’. I recently heard a story from a former prostitute from Vancouver who now works to warn young women against it. Among the many horror stories she told of men, including Robert Pickton who murdered 2 of her friends, is of a man who unexpectedly pulled a crow-bar out from his pocket and slammed her over the head with it several times. This is the reality of the ‘sex-trade’ in the city where Amy Lebovitch works at a much higher level. People like Amy forget what this life-style is really like for most young women and girls. It is a daily threat to their lives, and a daily prevention to any other form of life, including education and a steady income from a responsible employer, including self-employment that is not based upon prostitution.

  2. As a sex worker, I totally reject the attempts by sex-negative moralists to claim that people like me are victims who need to be protected for our own good. They have simply figured out that the traditional religious morality doesn’t sell any more, so now they are trying to scare people into opposing prostitution with talk of sex trafficking, sex slavery, and so on.

    It is a profession, and it is work that I love and do 100% by my own choice. To the extent sex work is risky, it is largely because we are criminalized, which creates a black market and attracts criminal violance. Being criminalized, many prostitutes are also afraid to go to the authorities when they are attacked or in danger.

    If you don’t like sex work, don’t be a sex worker and don’t pay for sexual services. Leave the rest of us alone and quit being a moralistic busybody! You wouldn’t want us trying to run your life. Live and let live!

  3. Hey starchild, i clicked on your link–I’m confused. The link talks about “self ownership” and the condition when one person makes claim or takes power over your person then that concept is violated. May I ask what you think is going on when a man buys your body? To me there is no greater violation of self ownership. He is paying to be in control, he is paying for non-personhood. How is your self esteem? Do you have any history of sexual abuse, neglect, rape, violence? Because most women who are prostituted do have this trauma in their past.