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

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World", a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Nevada and Canada have something in common - it is not a crime to sell sex for money in either place. But today, Canada's supreme court went even further. It struck down measures that banned keeping a brothel living on the profits of prostitution and street soliciting. Three workers launched the lawsuit in 2009, arguing the anti-prostitution measures prevented them from seeking safe working conditions. Julie Grant is with the organization Sex Professionals of Canada. Two members of her group launched the lawsuit. So what does the decision mean for sex workers in Canada? Will it lead to safer working conditions?

Julie Grant: Well, it means everything to us. 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.

Werman: You're an escort yourself, Julie. Have you been scared in recent years?

Grant: I personally have not even had a bad client, but I've been at a situation. For example, in 2003, I was with a two-escort call. We went to see two men and the other person I was with had a bad incident and 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. They were so interested in having us in their grasp and to go after the agency we worked for that I would never ever do that again. So hopefully this kind of situation can now be avoided now that we could openly go to the police and report crimes.

Werman: Now, the law permits what's known in Canadian law as "body house". I said it was a brothel, but there's a distinction. Clear that up for us.

Grant: So a body house, in Canadian law, just means it's a location that a sex worker uses to host clients. We are not allowed to have our own locations to host our clients. You may have something set up there, cameras, or you may have someone you work with, or you know the ways in and out, you know that you're there alone and there's no one hiding in the closet or anything. So it's just a security measure, but we're not allowed to do that. Basically the only way to do sex work in Canada legally is to work completely alone, you're not allowed to work with any other people, and to go to the location of the client. So that is the one legal way that you could operate right now, but you can't have a driver, you can't have anyone else working with you or getting paid by you. So it is highly dangerous. Or you have to do street-work, but you're not allowed to talk with clients about price when you're doing outdoor work because that's illegal, that's called communicating. So it's just set up to endanger us and to fail. And there are many, many other laws on the books here to deal with exploitative situations, to deal with procuring people, to deal with underage and trafficking and all that stuff. That's dealt with with Canadian law already, but it's just these three provisions - the body house, the living [??], and the communicating for the purposes of prostitution that were addressed in this situation to make it safer.

Werman: I gather that the ruling from Canada's supreme court does not mean that sex workers will now be free and clear. A conservative government could still craft new laws the make prostitution or related offenses criminal activities. Is that right?

Grant: They could. They could. We hope that they don't, but it is entirely possible. There has been an abolitionist, they call themselves abolitionists because they call us slaves, but they are prohibitionists really and this group is advocating for the Swedish model, also known as the Nordic model, where clients are all charged just for being clients. They can be the greatest client you ever had and tip you well and they can be disabled, they could be ninety years old, they may be harmless, and we may solicit them and they want those people to be charged.

Werman: I mean you say that the abolitionists call you a slave. I mean we are living in an age where activists are trying to limit sex and human trafficking. Did the supreme court take into consideration how his might encourage sex-tourism to Canada? How it might attract the players in the world of human trafficking to Canada?

Grant: Within the past five years we've created a brand-new human trafficking law. We, as sex workers, are totally against any kind of coercion, any kind of human trafficking, any kind of abuses in the industry, we are against that and those laws are on the books, so that can all be dealt with. It is just, again, these three provision that put us in danger.

Werman: I mean in Iceland there has been talk about some kind of movement to ban prostitution worldwide. Do you ever worry that maybe you're on the wrong side of history?

Grant: No. I don't worry about that. I think it is the oldest profession they say. It is going to go on no matter what. We have our own autonomy. I should have the right to make the decision if I want to go into this line of work or not and even if we had the greatest social safety net and a living wage and all those wonderful things, you would still have people that would want to do sex work, and why shouldn't they be able to? They should be able to and they should be able to do it safely.

Werman: Julie Grant with the organization Sex Professionals of Canada. Thanks very much.

Grant: You're welcome.