for the federal justice subcommittee hearings on Canada’s solicitation laws.
HE SPOKE FOR ALL OF US. Toronto City Councillor Kyle Rae was one of the only homos who managed
Sex. Drama. Queers. And a government subcommittee? Not the usual combination for sure.
Parliament’s subcommittee on solicitation laws was in Toronto on Mar 15 to get input about the current state of prostitution in Canada. Formed as a result of a motion over two years ago from Libby Davies, the queer New Democrat MP for Vancouver East, the subcommittee of Parliament’s Committee On Justice, Human Rights, Public Safety And Emergency Preparedness is reviewing those sections of the Criminal Code that deal with sex work.
Some queer activists were upset to learn about the hearings last week, complaining that they hadn’t been invited or even informed that they were taking place. They worried that a lack of queer representation would mean that their concerns about the Criminal Code’s laws against indecent acts and bawdy houses – not in the direct purview of the subcommittee, but relevant to a look at sex work – would be ignored.
Peter Bochove, who last year founded the Committee To Abolish The 19th Century as a way to lobby against Canada’s sex laws, originally considered gathering a group of activists to crash the meeting. He later changed his mind.
“It’s not the right thing to do,” he says. “People on that committee are trying to affect change. But we need to find a way to show our displeasure.”
Committee members and staff developed a list of people to invite to participate in the round tables, a list that hasn’t included many gay and lesbian activists.
In Toronto, Councillor Kyle Rae, who represents Toronto Centre-Rosedale where the gay village is located, was invited to speak, and representatives from the queer community seized the chance to speak during the open mic session. (Stephen Locke from Egale will be addressing the committee when it stops in Edmonton at the end of the month.)
Davies, who says she’s tried to spread the word about the hearings, says she can’t believe the feedback from gay and lesbian people who were interested in presenting.
“The committee has not had the capacity to respond to the enormous amount of concern that people have. When we finish our travel on the road, we will have additional times in Ottawa,” says Davies. She says she told Gilles Marchildon, the executive director of lobby group Egale Canada, about the hearings on Feb 24, if not before. But by then it was too late to get on the agenda.
“I feel bad that people are feeling like they didn’t have access,” she says. “There was no deliberate attempt by the committee to not have people heard. There was just way too many people to have everyone accommodated.”
Subcommittee chair John Maloney also addressed this issue at the hearing. “Our desire is to be inclusive. Unfortunately we have limitations of resources on that inclusiveness.”
Davies says that members of the public can request an opportunity to appear before the committee in Ottawa, or can submit a written brief, which is what Bochove is doing. She says it’s important to get information about bathhouses, indecent acts and other queer issues before the subcommittee; it’s only allowed to discuss materials that have been presented to it.
In his presentation, Rae ensured that bathhouses and gay sex would be a part of the committee’s agenda. In addition to discussing the need for the decriminalization of sex work, Rae also talked about issues faced by gay men.
“These very same laws have been used against gay men in bathhouses by the police who believed erroneously that prostitution was going on,” says Rae. “The bawdy-house laws must be changed.”
The Criminal Code section concerning the bawdy-house law is the area under which gay men are often charged when police conduct a raid on a bathhouse. Dating back to the mid-1800s the section refers to a place used by a person for prostitution or to commit indecent acts. “Indecent acts” are not defined and that lack of clarity can be used to target gay sex. Patrons of bathhouses are often charged as being found in a bawdy house or with committing an indecent act, while owners are charged with keeping a common bawdy house.
Bawdy-house laws are also used to punish sex workers operating out of their homes or a shared apartment. Despite this risk, about 75 to 90 percent of all sex work incurs indoors. Indeed, it is a lesser risk in many cases than street level prostitution.
Research shows that street-level work results in about 95 percent of the charges. More significantly however, street-level prostitution brings with it a greater risk for violence against the worker – the reason why Davies made the motion for the review.
A study on violence in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside found that 83 percent of sex workers reported being harassed while working on the street, usually by their johns. Over half had been robbed or physically assaulted, and one in three had been the target of attempted murder.
For Davies the disappearance and murder of so many women from her neighbourhood led to her belief that the law needs to be examined.
“I became very convinced that the Criminal Code itself was contributing to the deaths and the violence that these women face.”
That’s a view shared by many of the sex workers and sex worker organizations who spoke to the subcommittee.
Evan Smith, a queer sex worker and outreach worker, is in favour of decriminalization of prostitution (prostitution itself is not illegal, but communication for the purposes of prostitution is).
“I am a sex worker because I choose to be. I wasn’t abused. I don’t have a pimp except my landlord who wants rents. It’s a way to use my body to make money,” says Smith. “I don’t understand why as a student I’m encouraged to use my head, but when I use other parts of my body to make money I’m criminalized.”
Beverley McAleese, executive director of Street Light Support Services, agrees. “I don’t know of any other behaviour that makes a victim into a criminal.”
Valerie Scott of the Sex Professionals Of Canada urged the committee to look at decriminalization, not legalization.
“Legalization sees prostitution as a vice that is heavily legislated and controlled,” Scott told the subcommittee. “Decriminalization sees prostitution as a legitimate and necessary business.”