Decriminalizing prostitution would negatively impact Indigenous women: expert

An academic testifying about Canada's prostitution laws says decriminalization would disproportionately affect Indigenous women and girls.

A London, Ont. court is hearing arguments about the constitutionality of Canada's prostitution laws

An academic testifying about Canada's prostitution laws says decriminalization would disproportionately affect Indigenous women and girls. 

The testimony was part of a court hearing in London, Ont. looking into the constitutionality of the country's prostitution laws, also referred to as the Nordic Model or Bill C-36. 

Indigenous women are now over represented in the sex industry but there's no evidence that prostitution existed prior to colonization, said Cherry Smiley, an academic who studies the impact of prostitution on the lives on Indigenous women and girls. 

"The underlying ideology of sex buyers is that they can buy a woman and engage in sex on his terms," Smiley said. 

It was an emotional and tense day for Smiley, who at one point broke down in tears under cross-examination from defence lawyer Jack Gemmell. 

Three charges violate right to security: defence 

Smiley was the Crown's first witness. She is an Indigenous woman who has done an art exhibit with women who work in prostitution and she has worked with women who have suffered abuse and sexual violence. 

The court case centres around a London couple who was charged after the escort agency they were running, Fantasy World Escorts, was shut down by London police in November 2015. 

Their lawyers, Gemmell and James Lockyer, are arguing that three of the charges — procuring, advertising and materially benefiting from the sexual services of someone else — violate sex workers' constitutional right to security of the person. 
Tiffany Harvey and Hamad Anwar leave a London, Ont. courtroom on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. (Kate Dubinski/CBC News)

Smiley testified that there's a hierarchy within the sex trade, and Indigenous women are near the bottom. They are seen as less desirable and cannot charge as much for the same sexual acts as white women, Smiley said. 

She said there are stereotypes about Indigenous women as hyper-sexed, and decriminalizing prostitution and seeing it as "work" would entrench those stereotypes because women would be choosing to work in the sex industry. 

Prostitution is built on a foundation of inequality, so decriminalization would justify that inequality, she testified. 

Under cross examination, Smiley was asked several times about a line in her art piece in which she characterizes those who see prostitution as sex work as racist white men who don't care if Indigenous women die.  

"It's true that there are women who advocate for prostitution as sex work who are women but there are also men, and most of the buyers are men, and they have a vested interested to see it as work," Smiley said. 

Statistics 'have faces and names,' witness says

Gemmell kept repeating his question, asking "You're characterizing the people who support the decriminalization of prostitution as being so callous that they don't care if Indigenous women die. Has anyone actually said that? Has anyone said 'I don't care if Indigenous women die?'" 

Smiley needed a break and her testimony resumed. 

She explained that the statistics she is talking about "have faces and names. As I move through this, I think of family members and friends." 

Smiley said she rejects the idea that decriminalization of prostitution, or allowing women to work in escort agencies, for example, is a form of harm reduction, because in her view the very act of prostitution is so harmful that the harm cannot be reduced. 

Two defence witnesses testified earlier that the laws push the sex trade further underground and put sex workers at greater risk of harm. 

The Crown's position, and Smiley's, is that the laws protect women by decriminalizing the sale of sex, but punish the purchase of it, thereby reducing demand. 

Testimony of another defence witness, Dr. Maddy Coy, is scheduled for mid-March.