Conflict & Justice

Safe Sex? Canada's Supreme Court strikes down laws banning prostitution for reasons of safety

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Credit: REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, one of three current and former sex workers who initiated a challenge to Canada's prostitution laws, reacts at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa December 20, 2013.

The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the country's anti-prostitution laws. 

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It's being celebrated as a victory for sex workers who had argued that a ban on brothels and other measures made their profession more dangerous.

Prostitution isn't illegal in Canada, but many of the activities associated with prostitution are classified as criminal offenses.

The court struck down all three of Canada's prostitution-related laws: bans on keeping a brothel, living on the avails of prostitution, and street soliciting.

The case was brought by three women in the sex-trade - Amy Lebovitch, Terri-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott.

"It means everything to us," said Julie Grant, a sex worker and representative for the group Sex Professionals of Canada.  "In Canada, sex-trade workers are more afraid of the police than they are of predators. And we can't report bad clients because we are the ones who end up getting charged, so this has done a lot for sex worker safety in this country and we are elated with this decision."

Sex-trade workers in Canada stepped up their fight for safer working conditions following the serial killings of prostitutes by Robert Pickton in British Columbia.

Pickton was convicted in 2007 of killing six women whose remains were found on his farm outside Vancouver.

Sex-trade workers say the new ruling will give them the opportunity to report bad clients.

"In 2003 I was with a two-escort call," said Grant. "We went to see two men, and the other person I was with had a bad incident. We went to the police to report it and instead they interrogated us for six hours -  about the owner of the agency, about the driver, about all these other things, and they didn't even go to see that guy."

The court's ruling drew criticism from Canada's conservative government and religious leaders.

Don Hutchinson, vice president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, warned the decision could lead to increased human trafficking and victimization of people. "I think we're going to see an increase in cross-border traffic for those hoping to access our brothels," Hutchinson said.

The 9-0 Supreme Court ruling found that the laws violated the guarantee to life, liberty and security of the person. But the ruling won't take effect immediately because it gave Parliament a one-year reprieve to respond with new legislation.

Canada's Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the government was "exploring all possible options to ensure the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities, those engaged in prostitution, and vulnerable persons."

"It is the oldest profession," said Grant. "It is going to go on, no matter what. I should have the right to make the decision if I want to go into this line of work or not."

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