The ongoing battle with the legality of sex work-related activities is resurfacing in our country's judicial system. Today, workers from the Vancouver area brought their case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In 2007, the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society (SWUAV) introduced the issue to the Supreme Court of British Columbia, claiming that the current laws regarding prostitution are anti-constitutional. The B.C. court agreed with ongoing processes taking place in Ottawa and shut down the case, claiming sex workers did not have the right to argue against the Canadian body of law because the issue may not qualify for court procedures.
According to the court system, lawyers must prove the issues at stake are serious, that the parties involved in launching the case are directly involved, and that the court system is the only remedy to the problem.
Now, SWUAV is pursuing the case in Canada's top court amidst important social and judicial debates about the status of sex work as a job like any others.
While buying and selling sexual services is legal, most activities surrounding prostitution are forbidden. Communicating for the purpose of prostitution, living off the avails of prostitution, and owning or operating a common bawdy house are all listed as criminal activities.
Sex work activists and experts often argue that Canada's laws make it difficult for women to take part in safe practices.
During the inquiry into the Robert Pickton case in B.C., criminologist John Lowman argued that current laws make it easier for women to fall victim to sex predators.
Many Canadian law enforcers make it common practice to put offenders on boundaries, limiting their access to common stroll areas, and subsequently "pushing" sex workers outside their common work zones. Others are typically put on house arrest, fined, or incarcerated.
The issue here is one of security.
While covering the topic of prostitution in Halifax, N.S. I have come across many men and women who were victims of serious physical and sexual assaults.
Rene Ross, executive director at Stepping Stone, a support centre for sex workers in Halifax, argues criminalization has pushed sex workers to the outskirts of the city. Historically, Halifax's main stroll areas were contained within the downtown core.
"Basically criminalization has taken sex work and dispersed it through the city," said Ross. "It forces sex workers to flee from the police, it builds a mistrust between sex workers and law enforcement. Sex workers are also not reporting the crimes against them."
Tracy, who did not wish to share her last name, worked the streets of Halifax and Toronto to afford her addiction to opiates. She recalled an instance where a man drove her to a secluded part of a highway and beat her with his prosthetic leg before leaving her in a ditch and driving off. Tracy never reported the instance in fear of being victimized as a sex worker.
In fact, interviewing sex workers can be a challenge of its own since most active members seek anonymity and secrecy in fear of being recognized by clients or pimps and abused for divulging information about their job.
Not unlike arguments provided by lawyers in the B.C. case, many argue the current laws alienate people who take part in prostitution and make them out to be second-class citizens without rights to security.
Truth is, while it can be argued that some sex workers come from underprivileged backgrounds or take part in the trade for the quick access to money, many set off on the streets out of choice.
Prostitution, as it is, will most likely always create a divide in our society. However, it will be interesting to see the SWUAV's case develop in front of the Supreme Court of Canada and redefine the status of women, men, and transgendered folks who take part our country's sex-trade industry.
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