Throw out 'bizarre' prostitution laws, court told

Canada's prostitution laws are puzzling, ill-conceived and contribute to horrific violence against sex workers, a Toronto court heard Tuesday.
Terri-Jean Bedford, left, and Valerie Scott speak to reporters outside a Toronto courtroom on Tuesday. ((Michael Turschic/CBC))

Canada's prostitution laws are puzzling, ill-conceived and contribute to horrific violence against sex workers, a Toronto court heard Tuesday.

Lawyers for dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford and prostitutes Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch are arguing for Canada's current prostitution laws to be thrown out.

"This is not about a right to sell sex — you can sell sex," Alan Young, a lawyer for the women, told Ontario Superior Court on Tuesday.

"It's about a right to liberty and security."

While prostitution is technically legal, virtually every activity associated with it is not.

The Criminal Code of Canada prohibits communication for the purpose of prostitution. It also prohibits keeping a common bawdy house for the purpose of prostitution.

Those laws enacted in 1985 were an attempt to deal with the public nuisance created by street walkers. They failed to recognize the alternative — allowing women to work more safely indoors — was prohibited, he said.

Young called it "bizarre" that the ban on bawdy houses is an indictable offence that carries stiffer sanctions, including jail time and potential forfeiture of a woman's home, when the ban on communication for prostitution purposes is usually a summary offence that at most leads to fines.

The provisions prevent hookers from properly screening clients, hiring security or working in the comfort and safety of their own homes or brothels, he said.

Young cited statistics behind the "shocking and horrific" stories of women who work the streets along with research that was not available when the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the communication ban in 1990.

Decriminalization, not legalization

The three women involved in the case are calling for prostitution to be decriminalized.

Scott told CBC News in interview there's a distinction between legalization and decriminalization.

"Legalization views prostitution as a vice that needs to be heavily contained and controlled whereas decriminalization sees prostitution as a legitimate and necessary business," she said.

Places where prostitution has been decriminalized — like the Australian state of New South Wales and New Zealand — have seen a drop in related violence without an increase in sex workers, said Scott.

"Well, sex is a valuable thing, like food and medicine. And of course it's going to automatically be a commodity," she said.

"If Canada brought in an official death penalty for sex work there would still be sex workers. Instead ... I think that it's better for Canada to adopt a mature attitude and ditch these laws."

The attorneys general for Canada and Ontario, as well as some conservative groups such as Real Women of Canada, are intervening in the case.

'Not a Canadian value'

Diane Watts, a spokeswoman for Real Women, told CBC News that decriminalizing prostitution may make Canada a haven for human trafficking. She argued prostitution is harmful to the women involved in it.

"There will always be crime but we must try to diminish it, and no mother or father or grandparent wants their daughter or granddaughter or grandson to be a prostitute," she said.

"So it's not really a Canadian core value and this is what we're arguing in the courts, this is not a Canadian value."

Young said upholding the current laws on grounds of morality is "a good argument for [the] last century. It's not a great argument this century."

"Criminal law can support what are called core moral values, but it doesn't support moral preferences," he said. "And basically right now, the objective behind these laws are all secular, which is to prevent exploitation and to prevent nuisance."

With files from The Canadian Press