London

London agency calling for full decriminalization of prostitution

A major London agency is calling on the Canadian government to decriminalize prostitution in an effort to reduce harm and support sex workers.

The act of exchanging sexual services for money is not inherently violent or oppressive, group says

A picture taken in the Red Light District in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where sex work is decriminalized. (The Associated Press)

A major London agency is calling on the Canadian government to decriminalize prostitution in an effort to reduce harm and support sex workers. 

Regional HIV/AIDS Connection (RHAC) says removing "all criminal and administrative prohibitions and penalties on sex work," including laws that target people who purchase sex and so-called third parties who help run escort agencies, will reduce the risk of violence as well as stigma.  

"At RHAC we have seen first-hand the long term and deathly consequences of stigma and believe decriminalization will help reduce these experiences and promote greater autonomy and dignity for sex workers," the agency's board said in a statement. 

"The act of exchanging sexual services for money (or other similar transactions) is not inherently violent or oppressive. We support an individual's right to consent to engage in sex work or not." 

Representatives of SafeSpace, a drop in centre for London's sex workers, were consulted about the new position and praised the move, saying decriminalization would reduce stigma and enhance access to community services. 

"We are grateful RHAC is taking this position, which as stated, is informed by the best available evidence that demonstrates a strong association between the criminalization of sex work and increasing violence against sex workers," they said.

"We remain committed to advocating for policies that centre the voices of sex workers in our community and are pleased to have allies such as RHAC join us in the struggle." 

Sex work is not exploitation: RHAC

The board also called for "the removal of local policies that do not reflect the lived experiences of those in our community engaging in sex work." 

London police have recently been criticized for a new policy to name johns, or people charged with trying to buy sexual services, which opponents say further drives sex work underground and makes it more dangerous. 

Sex work must be seen as different from sexual violence, human trafficking and exploitation, the agency states. 

"We recognize that the overwhelming bulk of evidence-based research demonstrates that full decriminalization (of both supply and demand) consistently produces the best outcomes for sex workers, victims and survivors of human trafficking, and the community more broadly."

Agree to disagree

Megan Walker, head of the London Abused Women's Centre, disagrees with RHAC's stance. She has long advocated for sex purchasing to be illegal and for johns to be publicly named.  

She said the executive director of RHAC, Brian Lester spoke to her yesterday about the sex work position statement. 

"We all come to our work based on different experiences. At the London Abused Women's Centre, we support the decriminalization of women in the sex trade while criminalizing the men who purchase sex as well as pimps and brothel owners," Walker said. 

"We do not support the views of Regional HIV/AIDS Connection because in our experience in dealing with women, women are forced to do really violent sexual acts with men . We believe that decriminializing sex purchasers, pimps and brothel owners will create additional acts of violence against women and girls."

But what's important, Walker said, is that women who need help and services are never turned away. 

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