Toward a humane prostitution law
Like most of the world Canada is in the
forefront in tying to decide what to do with street providers. My only minor
objection in this article is that it implies the communications law is broader
than it actually is. It ONLY applies to on the street or in a public place like
the lobby of a hotel. Ads in magazines, newspapers, websites, soliciting on the
telephone is clearly NOT a violation of the communicating law. A recent cases
confirms even a cell phone communication is not public communications for the
John Lowman mentioned in the article in his study said in an interview that street prostitution should not be made legal (via repeal of communications law) but what to do with the huge humane issue of street providers is a major national concern. The emphasis is on helping them get out of prostitution not trying to encourage it by decrim of street providers via the public communications law.
Toward a humane prostitution law
John Hoey National Post
July 26, 2004
Canadian law on prostitution has changed little since our first Criminal Code outlawed "bawdy houses," procuring and living off the avails of prostitution. These laws are now largely unenforced, as anyone consulting a Yellow Pages under "escort services" will realize. In fact, most jurisdictions gave up on enforcement long ago, turning instead to regulation, licensing and taxation. As citizens, we all live off prostitution's "avails."
Despite the prevailing moral disdain for the buying and selling of sexual services, adult prostitution is not in itself technically illegal. But in 1985, the federal government passed a prostitution-control measure that prohibits communicating in a public place for the purpose of buying and selling sexual services. This paradox -- it is legal to buy and sell sexual services, but not to communicate about the transaction -- underscores the hypocrisy of Canadian prostitution law.
The communication provision was designed to deal with the nuisance factor of prostitution -- its visible presence on our streets -- and to thereby protect property values. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much to protect the desperate girls and boys who work the streets regardless of what the law may say.
Foremost among the health risks of prostitution is premature death. In a recent U.S. study of almost 2,000 prostitutes over a 30-year period, the most common causes of death were homicide, suicide, drug- and alcohol-related problems, HIV infection and accidents -- in that order. The homicide rate among active female prostitutes was 17 times higher than that of the age-matched general female population.
John Lowman of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University has written a thoughtful and comprehensive review of Canadian prostitution law (See mypage.uniserve.ca/~low man/ProLaw/prolawcan.htm.) He identifies a "two-tier" sex trade in Canada: "a licensed off-street trade, and a black market [on-street] trade."
The women who work in the regulated "escort" business are generally adults living fairly stable lives. For the most part, they are shielded from abusive clients and are free of police prosecution.
Young street prostitutes, on the other hand, are endlessly at risk from police and abusive clients. Many are under 18 and homeless. They live precarious lives. Few have qualifications for other work. For various reasons -- poverty, mental illness, homelessness, a history of childhood abuse -- they turn to prostitution as the only way to survive and pay for their basic needs. Even when drug addiction is not the source of their plight, it frequently develops amid life on the street, making it more difficult to escape and find safer employment.
Harassment by police can cause street prostitutes to conclude too-hasty negotiations with their customers -- often climbing into the client's car before they can properly judge his intentions. If violence or robbery ensues, they rarely report the incident to the police. As well, street prostitutes are more likely to encounter men whose intention is violence or a combination of sex and violence. These men avoid regulated off-street prostitutes because of the ease with which they can be identified during negotiations and payment for services.
Four out of every five prostitutes murdered in British Columbia between 1975 and 1994 worked on the streets.
Some provinces have followed the lead of Alberta's Protection of Children Involved in Prostitution Act (1999), which allows suspected underage sex trade workers to be apprehended and detained in "safe houses." Critics have argued, however, that legislation of this type defeats itself by driving child prostitution further underground.
Among the advocates of the decriminalization of prostitution is Quebec's Conseil permanent de la jeunesse, whose recently released report, Prostitution de rue, urges a broadly based harm-reduction approach. In addition to a range of recommendations that tackle the important issues surrounding street prostitution -- poverty, schooling, sex education of children, better health care, drug treatment, community policing, and so on -- the report recommends a repeal of the communication laws against both prostitutes and their clients.
This approach is a tough sell. Harm-reduction programs -- as opposed to "zero-tolerance" and other police-centred approaches -- force society to face up to problems it would rather not admit to, and acknowledge the needs and rights of society's outcasts.
Debates about harm-reduction strategies often appear in the news in the context of drug abuse. Controversies have emerged around plans for needle-exchange programs, safe injection sites, such as the one opened last year in Vancouver, and methadone maintenance programs.
Objections fall under two main categories: not-in-my-backyard complaints from residents situated near the newly created facilities; and the moralist argument, which asserts it is wrong for society to formally countenance morally offensive behaviour.
The fact remains that our prostitution laws are part of the problem for thousands of troubled children and adults who have been forced to sell their bodies on the streets. The laws need to be rewritten. A harm-reduction approach to prostitution, such as the one proposed in Quebec, is the way Canada needs to go.
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