CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

April 26, 2001 Should prostitution be legalized? SCPA panel debates






by Sylvain Comeau

Prostitution is not illegal in Canada, but anyone involved in the business risks legal trouble. For example, laws against solicitation, living off the avails of prostitution and running a bawdy-house create a legal minefield around an essentially legal transaction.

A School of Community and Public Affairs panel early this term debated the merits of decriminalization, in which those laws would be removed, possibly clearing the way for state regulation. The issue is not as clear-cut as it seems.

“One politically palatable solution might be to use the same mechanism as with gambling,” said Lise Pineault, a political advisor to Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe.

“Gambling remained in the criminal code, but was placed under the jurisdiction of the state. The government could do the same with prostitution.”

Pineault last summer worked on Bill C-231, a BQ bill intended to legalize brothels.

“We did not encounter objections from average people, or even from the police, but what people are really concerned about is when solicitation happens under their balcony, or when they can’t walk to the corner store without being propositioned. People want it out of sight and out of mind.” Bill C-231 failed because it did not address those concerns about street prostitution.

Brothels would be easier to regulate because they are fixed addresses. Panellists argued that police crackdowns on streetwalkers, which are often triggered by demands from residents of poor neighborhoods, do more harm than good.

Nicole Kennedy, who works at the Centre d’Education et d’Action des Femmes, a social service organization in Centre-Sud, described an angry backlash against streetwalkers in that area.

“They were blaming prostitutes for the crack houses in the area, and the generally poor quality of life there. Calling the police only makes things worse, because that only drives prostitutes deeper into the trap. They need money fast to pay their fines.”

Lainie Basman, of Stella, a sex workers’ rights group, said that those legal problems can aggravate their precarious lifestyle and working conditions, discouraging them from filing complaints against attackers.

“In principle, a sex worker should be able to file a complaint about having been sexually assaulted or raped. But they’re often afraid to report it because they might get arrested themselves, due to unpaid fines. Plus the complaints are not always taken seriously, because some people believe that sex workers are asking to be raped.”

Kennedy agreed, but argued against complete decriminalization, which would let the bosses off the hook.

“We have to get the law off the backs of the women on the front lines. But since women and girls are trafficked across borders every year, there have to be sanctions for the traffickers.”

Basman argues that the danger and bad working conditions common to the profession won’t change as long as it remains underground.

“I don’t see why the exchange of sex for money is any different from any other form of labour, many of which were exploitative and dangerous before labour reforms were introduced.”