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Sonya JF Barnett: "Canada's prostitution laws file our country under archaic, not enlightened"

This past Saturday, I attended in solidarity the National Day of Action to Support Sex Workers, hosted by Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. Along with a few hundred others, we walked from Queen Street West towards Allan Gardens, chanting things like ‘No bad whores! Only bad laws!” and “Sex work is real work! Decriminalize now!” A sea of red umbrellas –the international symbol for sex workers rights – moved its way northward along Sherbourne as those in the industry and their allies, friends, and family happily chanted with them.

I had been asked by organizers at Maggie’s to photograph the event, which I happily obliged. Not being a sex worker myself, but a staunch supporter of their rights, I’ll help those who ask. I don’t have to be in the industry to understand the egregious imbalance of justice when it comes to their rights and how they are seen in the eyes of the law, and society in general. 

The true purpose of the rally was to show support for those whose lives will be affected by the upcoming Supreme Court decision relating to three specific sections of the Criminal Code. The challenge was first brought forth in 2009 by three sex workers –Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott–arguing that the current laws are unconstitutional, stating they go against the Charter’s “right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right to not be deprived thereof.”

Our legal system permits prostitution, but the steps to get to the exchange of money for sex may land you in jail. Section 210 prohibits the operation of a “bawdy house” (the term on its own should convince you that our Criminal Code needs to enter the 21st century), where one cannot perform sex for money (if you do it more than once in the same location, it’s considered such an establishment), or employ anyone relating to sex work in any given location.

Section 212  – often called the ‘pimping law’- prohibits “living on the avails” of prostitution. This means no pimps (we seriously need better terminology), Madames (damn!), security, drivers, accountants, managers, etc. This can also affect (read: charge) anyone living with a sex worker, and anyone who accepts a financial transaction from one. Better hope your roommate or partner isn’t moonlighting.

These two sections were struck down as unconstitutional last year, but the third section in question, 213, was upheld, and is probably the most dangerous to sex workers. The Communicating law prohibits discussion of sex for money in a public place– your cell phone outside of your residence, and your car included.

When street-based sex workers can’t take the time to vet their clients properly, and instead have to jump into just anyone’s car for fear of getting busted, who are the laws protecting? And with laws restricting those who can have sex outdoors coupled with laws that severely restrict procuring services indoors, where does that leave? The confusion and restrictions of Canada’s prostitution laws file our country under archaic, not enlightened.

While Canada leads in many progressive issues – same-sex marriage, healthcare, abortion, diversity, it falls woefully behind in dealing with an issue that affects so many of its citizens.

So, what happens if the Supreme Court decides that these three laws are so unconstitutional that they will be overturned? Chaos? The moon turning blood red? Dogs and cats living together?


Things will stay pretty much business as usual in terms of what most of the public will see. Contrary to what many think, brothels are not going to show up on every corner like Starbucks (any establishment will have to go through the same regulations that other business do); ‘johns’ won’t be walking around all hours of the day, and women in ripped fishnets will not be waiting for teen boys at the school gates. Sex workers have always found a way to run their businesses, legal or not. Brothels already exist across Canada – you just don’t know where they are. And they want to keep it that way. As much as the ‘concerned citizen’ doesn’t want to be bothered by the industry, the industry doesn’t want to be bothered by that citizen. Despite prostitution being legal, the stigma attached to both sex workers and their clients will remain pretty steadfast. So no, many sex workers don’t want you knowing where they’re working. They just want the same protections that the rest of us get. 

What will happen: sex workers will be able to report crimes against them without fear of their own prosecution, will be able to work safely indoors (studies have shown that the allowance of brothels reduces street-based work1, hire protective services, receive proper health and childcare, etc. Not to mention less strain on the police and judicial systems due to reduced arrests and incarcerations, and an increase in the economy: creation of jobs, lease and purchase of property, and yes, even tourism.

But there are loudmouths helping Canada hold on to antiquated ideas and erroneous information regarding prostitution. Groups like the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Christian Legal Fellowship, the Catholic Civil Rights League and the “pro-family conservative women’s movement,” REAL Women of Canada are trying their hardest to keep this country in the dark ages, citing that no woman chooses to enter the sex trade, that all who do are victims and need saving, and who often conflate prostitution with trafficking. It’s these groups that the Supreme Court of Canada have granted Intervenor status in the landmark case. These groups aren’t interested in listening to those in the industry who refute their claims; they’re interested in keeping their sidewalks squeaky clean and their housing values high. I bet none of their spouses have ever procured the service of a sex worker. Nope. Never.

Those not granted status to be heard by the Supreme Court? Three of Canada’s top sex worker organizations: Ottawa’s POWER, Toronto’s Maggie’s, and Montreal’s Stella. These are groups that have been working tirelessly with and for sex workers, but apparently are not significant or holy or smart enough to be heard. The industry often uses the term “Nothing about us without us,” which is one of the most logical terms I’ve ever heard in relation to policy, yet Canada is turning a deaf ear.

Since we’re not leading the charge in how sex work is viewed, Canada should at least learn by example. Other countries across the globe have their own forms of prostitution laws with varying forms of success– the leader being New Zealand, whose history comes closest to mirroring our current scenario. In 2003, they decriminalized prostitution, repealing the same three laws that Canada is considering, and their laws previous were similar to what we now see here: legal with nonsensically tight restrictions.

To see whether the new legislation had any impact one way or another, the New Zealand Minister of justice assembled the Prostitution Law Review Committee. Their findings proved that the change in laws are working, and actually benefitting sex workers, which was the prime directive of the reform. There was no significant change in the amount of people entering the industry, nor in rates of violence or trafficking. Sex workers have also become more open to interacting with local police, reporting violence without fear.

Despite this prototype, and evidence to support the positive effects of decriminalization, Canada has been instead closely studied the Swedish model: Criminalize the client with the understanding that all sex workers are unwilling participants and victims of violence. They are given access to education and work programs to entice them away from sex work, but I doubt there are programs in place for those who will look upon sex workers with prejudice. The stigma remains on the sex worker. It’s a severely flawed system.

There is no one system anywhere that is a perfect model, but there are those with legitimate concern for sex workers that see them as autonomous, making their own choices. It will take consideration of all parties, not just the ones who stand on traditional or moralistic soapboxes. It will take years to perfect any legislation, with trail and error, discussion and adjustment. That shouldn’t interfere with Canada’s decision to step in to the 21st Century, and see that all its citizens are deserving of the protections promised in our constitution. We should listen to the Netherlands Minister of Justice, who sees reform as necessary because “prostitution exists [as] a given fact, even for the government. That requires a realistic approach, without moralism.”

So think long and hard about what this Constitutional challenge means for Canada, not what it means for suburban curb appeal.


Sonya JF Barnett, also known as “The Madame,” is the founder of an erotic arts community called The Keyhole Sessions and the co-founder of SlutWalk Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @KeyholeSessions

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