Sex Workers in Canada Celebrate Supreme Court Decision

Last year, the Canadian Supreme Court gave sex workers in Canada an early Christmas present. On December 20, 2013, the Canadian Supreme Court struck down prostitution laws. Admittedly, prostitution was already legal in Canada – technically. In practice, though, it may as well have been illegal because of a set of three prostitution-related laws.

Specifically, the Supreme Court struck down a trio of laws that that a group of sex workers in Canada had challenged as being unconstitutional.

  • First, it had been illegal for anyone to communicate about selling sex in public. That didn’t just make street prostitution effectively illegal; in some areas it was enforced to make online advertising illegal and to restrict other forms of sex work communication as well.
  • Second, it had been illegal to own and operate a brothel. Brothels would have effectively made it possible to communicate about selling sex without doing so in public. Also, brothels would have offered a safe option for sex workers, an alternative that would have been better than working on the street.
  • Third, it had been illegal for anyone other than the sex worker herself to earn money off the avails of prostitution. That meant that bodyguards and drivers were just as illegal as pimps, and unfortunately this law was used to target the people who would have kept sex workers safer.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court struck down all three of these prostitution-related laws in December. In the court’s decision, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote, “These appeals and the cross-appeal are not about whether prostitution should be legal or not. They are about whether the laws Parliament has enacted on how prostitution may be carried out pass constitutional muster. I conclude that they do not.” Part of her justification for concluding that the laws were unconstitutional was that, she wrote, “Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes.”

Safety, in fact, was a major reason that this case even came to the Supreme Court in the first place. Sex workers in Canada had begun to worry much more about safety in recent years, ever since the brutal murders by serial killer Robert Pickton. Pickton was a British Columbian pig farmer who murdered at least 6 – but maybe as many as 49 – women between 1983 and 2002. During that time period, these particular prostitution-related laws proved particularly problematic because one brothel that had been functioning as a safe house in British Columbia was closed at the height of the Pickton killings.

Fortunately, though, as a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, Canadian sex workers will be safer now – for at least the next year. In the court’s decision, they gave Parliament a year to redraft these three laws. In the meantime, many police departments have decided not to enforce or prosecute violations of any of these three laws. In a year, though, sex workers could be in the clear if the Parliament doesn’t decide to redraft the laws – although things could end up worse if the next set of laws are stricter. Hopefully that won’t happen, though!

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