Terri Jean Bedford

Credit: Ryan/Metrix X on Flickr, under Creative Commons

TORONTO (WOMENSENEWS)–Jackie Lynne, a social worker and former prostitute, is one of the many vocal critics of the Supreme Court of Canada‘s unanimous decision late last month to strike down all of Canada‘s laws that criminalize prostitution.

Lynne is concerned by the message decriminalization sends to the Canadian public about prostitution; namely that prostitution should be recognized as a career choice.

“My body knows that it was never work,” Lynne said in a phone interview from her home in Vancouver. “It has been decades since I have been prostituted. I am still healing from the harms of it.”

The Supreme Court struck down laws prohibiting operating a brothel, living off the avails of prostitution and street communication. The case was brought by three former and current sex workers. They argued that the laws–which made practices such as hiring drivers and guards illegal–violated their constitutional right to a safe work environment.

Lynne has studied prostitution academically for 15 years, after completing a master’s degree in social work at the University of British Columbia. In 2012 she co-founded Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry, based in Vancouver, to bring attention to the inequalities that land indigenous women in sex work and to demand resources for women trying to exit the industry.

What troubles Lynne that most as a Métis, an aboriginal group in the country, is the overrepresentation of indigenous women in prostitution in Canada. For her, decriminalization won’t change the conditions that drive such women into prostitution and won’t make it any safer.

“It’s sexual assault and why it’s not called that is because we live in a society where if you pay for something, it’s OK,” Lynne said.

Safety Debate

The current legislation will stay in effect for one year, leaving time for the Canadian government to respond.

In a statement, Justice Minister Peter MacKay indicated the Conservative government will be looking to address the negative impacts of prostitution.

“We are reviewing the decision and are exploring all possible options to ensure the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities, those engaged in prostitution and vulnerable persons,” the statement reads.

Amy Lebovitch is an applicant in the case along with Valerie Scott and Terri-Jean Bedford. She said in a phone interview that she hopes the court’s decision will stay intact, allowing her to work without fear of being harassed or arrested by police while also being able to hire support staff such as drivers and security guards for her personal protection.

Lebovitch, 34, advocates for sex worker rights as executive director of the Sex Professionals of Canada, based in Toronto. She has worked indoors and outdoors for over a decade. For Lebovitch, the most significant part of the ruling was the striking down of the communication law, which criminalizes solicitation in public by prostitutes and was upheld by a lower court ruling in 2012. She said that law penalizes those working on the street who represent “the most marginalized and most targeted by the sex work laws.”

Many Canadian women’s groups reject the premise that complete decriminalization will help women, especially those that are most marginalized.

Kim Pate is executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, a national umbrella of 24 societies that assist women and girls in the justice system, based in Ottawa. Pate says the most vulnerable women in sex work will not have access to the type of safety that decriminalization might afford others.

Michèle Audette from the Native Women’s Association of Canada, also based in Ottawa, agrees with Pate, noting that Aboriginal women also suffer high levels of systemic discrimination throughout Canadian institutions making it difficult to report violence.

“Legalizing brothels and escort services will only help to empower traffickers-pimps and continue to put women at risk of violence, while making it more difficult to exit or report any harm they experience,” her group said in a statement issued after the court’s decision.

Is Nordic Model Safer?

The Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the Native Women’s Association of Canada belong to the nationwide Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution. The group has “intervenor” status, which gives a nonparty the ability to join an ongoing case. The coalition is advocating for the Nordic model, a legislative framework implemented in Sweden, Norway and Iceland that views prostitution as violence against women. The model criminalizes buyers and those who profit from prostitution while decriminalizing prostitutes.

Pate, from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, said the Nordic model is also preferable because it incorporates coordination across institutions that provide social support for those wanting to exit prostitution.

Lebovitch, however, rejects the Nordic model. She said if her clients were criminalized it would still cause fear about police, which would lead to hiding and unsafe conditions for sex workers. Lebovitch also challenges the underlying assumption of the Nordic model that all prostitution is violence against women.

She said that those who support the Nordic model “have to be OK with naming other people’s experiences for them and I think that’s not very sex worker-centric.”

As the government weighs its response to the court decision this year, Lebovitch will focus on ways to ensure this decision is upheld in full. This will include discussions with municipalities, which have the power to enact by-laws that could impact the implementation of full decriminalization.

Meanwhile Audette plans to hit the ground running in 2014, lobbying for change through Parliament. She noted that it will likely be high on the agenda on the Special Committee on Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. Her group, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, will also work with the Women’s Coalition to build policy that will fill the gaps left by full decriminalization.

“I have hope of course, but I’m not naïve,” she said.


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