Opinion: Putting an end to exploitation the best course of action

The Vancouver Sun
Monday, October 25, 2010

By Christine Boyle

Public debate is swirling about the impact of the recent decision, in Bedford v. Canada, to strike down much of Canada's prostitution law as it applies in Ontario. On Oct. 12, the British Columbia Court of Appeal gave the green light to the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society to argue that the same thing should be done here.

The society's objectives include the improvement of working conditions for women in the sex trade. Other groups do not agree that prostituting others should be decriminalized. Instead, they press for what is called the Swedish or Nordic model. This involves, on the one hand, criminalization of those who prostitute others, and, on the other, welfare initiatives aimed at reducing prostitution. The Native Women's Association of Canada is a vital part of the abolition movement. Given the over-representation of, and extreme danger to, aboriginal women in the sex industry, the association's voice should be given respect. At its annual general assembly this September, the association called on the government of Canada to remove criminal prohibitions against persons selling their sexual services while retaining prohibitions against buyers, pimps, procurers and bawdy house keepers. They also called for government initiatives to increase options to keep women and girls from having to resort to, or enable them to leave, prostitution.

The association is not alone. The Canadian Federation of University Women has called for similar initiatives. Reflecting the connection between prostitution and other forms of violence targeted primarily against women, the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres has emphatically denounced the purchase of sexual services as being incompatible with the safeguarding of human rights, especially equality between women and men.

Such voices, including Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, cannot be dismissed as marginal. In 1981, when Canada ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the federal government promised that it would "take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women."

The Ontario decision should not stand in the way of adoption of the Swedish model, which is mentioned in the case itself. Justice Susan Himel held that laws could be better tailored to the protection of "prostitutes," noting, as one example, that "Sweden, where prostitution is approached as an aspect of violence against women and children, [so] buying sex is illegal, the seller of sex is seen as a victim and not criminalized. Public education campaigns targeting buyers of sexual services have reduced demand. Intensive police training has led to a 300-per-cent increase in arrests and a reduction of complaints that the law is too difficult to enforce."

Further, her decision is vulnerable to appeal. It was based on harm to "prostitutes," in her view flowing from current laws, and does not suggest that the law harms buyers. Nevertheless the remedy she adopts, that of striking down a range of prostitution offences, is not tailored to the harm discussed but sweeps away the laws as they apply to buyers too.

Her terminology seems based on an assumption of a class of people, "prostitutes," whose choices are so constrained within that status by the current criminal laws that they are put at risk. If indeed there are people who prostitute themselves by choice they can of course avoid any harm flowing from criminalization by obeying the law. Those who don't have a choice should not be criminalized. Here again she notes the Swedish model, with its poverty-reduction measures. Of course, a person who buys the sexual services of others cannot be sure that those others are willing participants in their own prostitution.

The Ontario ruling is being appealed. We don't know what B.C. courts will do. However, we do not have to wait. Parliament and the provinces should join the abolition movement now.

Christine Boyle is a professor of law at the University of British Columbia, specializing in issues of equality and criminal law.