Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Court ruling finally brings sex workers out of the shadow

You’ll be reading this today, or maybe even weeks from now. By then it will be old news that the Ontario Superior Court tossed out the bulk of Canada’s prostitution laws.
But it’s Tuesday, Sept. 28 right now, 11:01 a.m. I’m sitting down to write this mere minutes after the first amazing email landed in my inbox with the news. I’ve been crying happy tears ever since. I’m still in the buzz of the moment, so please don’t mind me if I get all emotional.
Years of battle lie ahead, of course. Brothels, living off the avails and communicating for the purposes of prostitution were all rendered legal in Ontario with the decision, which ultimately has implications coast to coast. The first thing the Crown’s going to do after everybody gets past the shock is file an appeal. Then it’s off to the ultimate arbiter, the Supreme Court of Canada.
Still, there’s no going back from what has already changed. The moment Ontario Superior Court Judge Susan Himel handed down her decision Tuesday, sex workers finally became people. They became flesh-and-blood women and men, out there working for a living like the rest of us.
"By increasing the risk of harm to street prostitutes, the communicating law is simply too high a price to pay for the alleviation of social nuisance," Himel wrote in her 131-page ruling. The danger sex workers face “greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public.”
Court decisions seem like pretty sterile documents by the time the public gets a look at them. But there’s real pain, and incredible bravery, in the process that brought about this most recent judgment.
The sex workers who appeared before the court were subjected to intense and prying questions by prosecutors. I still remember the day a friend of mine came back from giving her testimony, the broken way she looked. It had been a hard and humiliating experience.
These women put their lives on public display as few would be willing to do. Without them, there would have been no case. I hope they are celebrating like crazy this week.
University of Toronto law professor Alan Young and the legal team who took on this challenge worked for free. They went to extraordinary effort to build a story that spoke to the law while also bringing the voices of Canada’s sex workers and advocates to the fore. There would have been no case without them, either.
When all of this got underway, I couldn’t have guessed how the court might finally rule. At that level, the law is not often something that the common person can understand.
But then I learned a few months back that the legal test was essentially whether Canada’s prostitution laws caused more harm than good. And that’s when I knew there was a good chance that the sex workers were going to win.
Our laws are well-documented for hurting and killing sex workers while doing nothing to curb the industry. If harm versus public good was the test, there was no question in my mind.
Even when the laws aren’t enforced - which is mostly the case in Canada for the laws around keeping a bawdyhouse or living off the avails - they cause harm by shutting sex workers out of the mainstream and deepening stigma.
It took me a long time to form my views on sex work, through many twists and turns in career and personal experience. I now feel unequivocally that adult, consensual sex work must be legalized.
But it took me years to get here, and I respect that not everybody will greet Judge Himel’s ruling as a gift from the heavens. Some may even see it as the end of the world.
But what is the argument for anyone being subjected to injury, death, immense shame and stigma just because another segment of the population believes the way they make their living is immoral?
Perhaps you can’t imagine doing the work and wouldn’t want it for your own daughter. But is that really reason enough for laws that ramp up the danger and difficulty for other people’s daughters and sons?
People struggle with the idea that sex work could ever be part of their community. But the truth is that it already is. Thank you, Judge Himel, for seeing the people in the shadows.

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