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59 arrested in hooker sweeps

Decriminalize, queer activists urge

Three summer prostitution sweeps — one each in June, July and August — have netted at least 59 men and women in Ottawa in recent weeks. Police arrested most of them through stings which hooker activists call “dehumanizing” and “counterproductive.”

Uniformed and plain-clothes officers, working in “lure and catch” teams of three to five officers, solicit and then arrest people involved with sex work, explains Roley Campbell, an Ottawa Police officer. Teams use a female officer posing as a prostitute or as a male officer posing as a john as bait.

That process is dehumanizing, says Amy Lebovitch, a Toronto sex worker. With Sex Professionals Of Canada, Lebovitch is part of an growing group of women advocating for the decriminalization of their work.

“Sweeps shame [sex workers]. It definitely sends a clear message that these people aren’t human, that they’re just trash,” she says.

These sweeps often accompany tourist season, Lebovitch points out and “until the community recognizes sex workers as part of the neighbourhood,” police action will likely continue.

Gay sex has been tightly regulated by the government throughout most of Canada’s history. When sex laws began to be relaxed in the 1970s, gay activists and sex workers formed a natural alliance to push government out of regulating how they use their bodies.

In Ottawa, sex workers are charged with a variety of offences including breach of recognizance, drug offenses, breach of parole conditions, prostitution-related offences and mischief.

The final charge of mischief, according to Terry Welsh of the Ottawa Police, is levied because of the community’s reaction to sex work and because citizens often “call and place complaints.”

Some johns are sent to a pre-charge diversion program known as John School. To qualify for this program, johns must have no criminal record, be a legal adult, have the desire to attend and must “show some sort of remorse.” Prostitutes are often released with strict restrictions as to where they can be. They can be subject to curfews in an effort make it impossible for them to return to their previous “hooking” grounds.

Campbell admits, however, that this often leads to women simply ignoring their curfew and moving to other areas to ply their trade, defeating the purpose.

The whole exercise is counterproductive, Lebovitch says. If women are given stiff fines, they’ve got to go back to the streets to earn the money to pay them. And if they wind up with a criminal record, she says, it can limit their ability to get work in fields other than sex work — if or when they want to.

Under the Criminal Code Of Canada, the physical act of prostitution itself — two or more persons engaged in sexual acts for a fee — is not illegal. The code prohibits “procuring” the services of a prostitute and also “keeping a common bawdy house,” which it defines as “a place kept or occupied or resorted to by one or more persons for the purposes of prostitution or the arts of indecency.”

Bawdyhouse laws have also been used repeatedly to shut down gay bathhouses. Police tend to charge and release the names of hundreds of gay men, some closeted. The 2002 Goliath raids in Calgary, conducted under the provisions of Canada’s bawdyhouse laws, are a painful reminder gays are still targeted by police for their sexual expression.

For prostitutes, the laws mean that the place where by a prostitute practices her trade — be it her home, a hotel or other place of residence — becomes an illegal habitation and all persons within are subject to the penalties for “keeping a bawdy house,” an indictable offence which can carry a sentence of up to two years in prison.

With these women supporting themselves financially in part on their sex work, what are they supposed to do instead of hook in order to survive?

“Whatever they do in their normal lives when they aren’t hooking,” Campbell replies. “There are women’s shelters if they need some place to live.”

“We have complaints of parents of 16-year-old kids that johns mistake for prostitutes (in these areas) and then follow them home,” says Campbell. “All of our sweeps are based on community complaints.”

But even neighbourhood groups, usually bastions of conservative not-in-my-backyard types, aren’t uniformly opposed to hooking.

Evan Soikie, the Chairperson for the Vanier branch of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations For Reform Now said many of his members have “mixed feelings” about the prostitution sweeps in their area. Although the community group is strongly opposed to “brothels” in their area, Soikie himself expresses some dissatisfaction with the sweeps, although he stresses he can not speak for the entirety of ACORN.

Soikie does not feel that the police are paying enough attention to the drug addiction issues many women face, and that his organization would like to see more addictions services in place.

“Generally, from what I’ve seen, the police go through and pick up (prostitutes) and then they’re back on the streets in hours. We call it catch and release.”

Soikie admits prostitution is a contentious issue among his members,

“A lot say they don’t want them in their neighbourhood, but others say prostitution could be legalized,” he says. “Whatever the solution is, prostitution is a number one concern in our community. Exactly what those solutions are, I can’t say.”

Peter Bochove says he knows.

Bochove is the gay chair of the Toronto-based Committee To Abolish The Nineteenth Century, a group which promotes modernized sex-laws. He says the best way to make communities safer — both for prostitutes and for the people who live there — is to decriminalize prostitution. The criminalization of prostitution, he says, forces prostitutes to carry out their business in undesirable and illicit ways, which contribute to both the community based issues which concern ACORN and to the safety of the prostitutes themselves.

“Current prostitution law puts these women in danger. The case of Robert Pickton [of British Columbia] is just one of many. These [prostitutes] are human beings and should be protected. It makes me sick,” Bochove says.

Legalizing prostitution would also free up much-needed resources in the justice system, he adds, which are currently being “wasted” prosecuting those accused of prostitution offences.

“We’re talking about consenting adults having sex for money and for the hell of it,” he says. “The current prostitution law is created by a very judgemental society.”