In 2007, Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch constitutionally challenged three Ontario laws that they say make it difficult for prostitutes to engage in sex work safely.
While sex work is technically legal in Canada, the three laws the trio want abolished are operating a bawdyhouse, living off the avails of sex work and communicating for the purposes of sex work.
In March 2012, a five-judge panel in an Ontario Court of Appeal decision unanimously struck down the first two laws. The law pertaining to communicating was upheld by a three-to-two vote.
The federal government appealed.
The Supreme Court decision will apply to all provinces.
“The section on communication for the purpose of prostitution prevents sex workers from taking safety measures such as taking a minute to assess a client or even discuss what the agreement is,” says Frédérique Chabot, of POWER, an acronym for Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist.
“You need to jump in a car right away, choosing between getting arrested or assessing the safety of the situation,” she says.
According to Chabot, the law pertaining to communication is the most enforced, accounting for about 95 percent of sex-worker-related arrests.
Meanwhile, the law against operating a bawdyhouse robs sex workers of the option to work in a familiar environment and therefore decreases their level of safety, Chabot says.
The law against living off the avails of prostitution also has a “very large impact” on sex workers, Chabot contends.
“Technically, it’s to protect sex workers from exploitation; it’s called the pimping law. But basically, it’s so large that it criminalizes professional relationships such as bodyguards, drivers or other escorts with whom you want to start a business.”
“Basically, the sex workers are asking for these special laws that deal with prostitution, that are supposedly in place to protect them, to be removed because we have the tools in the Criminal Code to actually deal with the specific violence that can happen in the context of a stigmatized and marginalized profession. These laws have only served the purpose of criminalizing the very people that we’re technically here to protect,” Chabot says.
Several sex worker organizations, including POWER, asked to intervene in the Supreme Court hearing, but Justice Richard Wagner denied their request.
Bedford briefly addressed her supporters, who carried red umbrellas as a sign of solidarity.
“Prime Minister Harper is doing what organized crime wants him to do,” Bedford alleged several times.
Scott read from a prepared statement attributed to herself and Lebovitch.
“This case is about safety,” Scott said. “Sex work has always been a legal occupation in Canada. The bawdyhouse law prohibits us from working indoors. But the communicating law prevents us from working outdoors. This puts us in an impossible situation. We cannot respect the dictates of one law without violating the dictates of another.”
Not all protesters were at the Supreme Court to support the trio.
Bridget Perrier, co-founder of sextrade.com and backed by the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, brandished a bent wire hanger.
“This,” Perrier said, motioning to the hanger, “was used routinely as discipline for me, heated up. Imagine what this damage caused.”
Perrier said she attended the inquiry into the Robert Pickton murders and adopted the daughter of Brenda Wolfe, one of Pickton’s victims.
“To sit there and say that this is a choice for those poor, beautiful women who lost their lives — 78 orphans were left behind because their mothers were vulnerable and they needed help. We need to really rethink this law,” Perrier said.
Perrier, a former sex worker herself, said she began to be victimized by men at 12 years old and still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“To sit here and look at Bedford and them is disgusting,” Perrier said. “Saying that they are doing this for the women of Vancouver’s Eastside. They’re not doing this for anything; they are doing this for greed.”
Perrier later clarified that only johns, whom she called “locusts,” and pimps should be treated as criminals, while sex work itself should be decriminalized.
“I think we need to look at women who are selling sex as victims, that they are not criminals. It’s intimate violence once money changes hands.”
But Scott contends there is nothing violent about sex work and Perrier’s attitude is one of an “anti-choice feminist.”
Morgan Thorne, a sex worker who travelled from Toronto to sit on the pro-Bedford side of the argument, says she would like to have the ability to make her own decisions.
“It drives me crazy that people feel that they can make decisions about me and my life without including me. I don’t think anybody would be happy with that. I would like to be able to work and not be a criminal.”