Sex Work
3 min

“It’s a good day,” sex workers say in wake of Ontario court decision

"How will I celebrate? I'm going to spank some asses," said a jubilant Terri-Jean Bedford at a press conference on Sept 28.

Bedford, with Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, challenged three of Canada’s sex laws; the result — an Ontario Superior Court decision striking laws that forbid soliciting, keeping a bawdy house and living off the avails of prostitution — is a stinging rebuke of the criminalization of sex work.

"You can only imagine how pleased and elated we are today," Scott told a room at The 519 packed with media and sex workers.

Bedford, Scott and lawyer Alan Young were clearly surprised by the decision, which only affects sex workers in Ontario, and which comes with a freeze of 30 days before taking effect.

"This is one of the first times in the last 25 years that rationality has triumphed over hypocrisy," said Young. "Justice [Susan] Himel proved that after 25 years, the charter still has teeth."

Across the country, plaintiffs in a similar BC case still making its way through the court system applauded the Ontario decision.

"The court has finally heard what sex workers and their allies have been screaming about for years," says Susan Davis of BC's Coalition for Experiential Communities. "These laws have placed sex workers outside society's sphere of concern. This is a historic day." 

The biggest change is that sex workers will be free to work indoors and in groups, without triggering Canada's bawdyhouse laws, says Young. It also means hookers will be able to hire drivers, bouncers and bodyguards to keep themselves safer.

It could protect the country's bathhouses, which have suffered through police harrassment, usually using the periodic enforcement of the bawdyhouse law.

"It prevents a return to the bathhouse raids of the 1970s; that can’t happen again under this regime," said Young after the press conference. However, "because of the political mobilization of the gay community, their spaces for quasi-public sexuality have been largely immunized from the police, and every intrusion has resulted in a withdrawal of charges."

Bathhouses have been raided repeatedly in Canada, most recently in Hamilton (2004) and Calgary (2002).

The mood in the room was electric. After the speeches ended, representatives from Maggie's House, a support centre for Toronto sex workers broke into a cheer of "Hey, ho, let's go."

"It is a good day for this country," said Bedford.

The Globe and Mail has more on what happens next:

The ruling means that the law can no longer be enforced in Ontario. If the decision were to be upheld on appeal, it would topple the use of the prostitution provisions across the country.

In the short term, however, the Ontario Crown is expected to seek a stay of execution that would permit police to temporarily continue enforcing the law.

Xtra's federal politics reporter Dale Smith was on the Hill today and he got reaction from MPs. The Harper government is "seriously considering" an appeal. 

More from an Oct 2009 Xtra report:

Valerie Scott, executive director of Sex Professionals of Canada, and fellow sex work activists Terri-Jean Bedford and Amy Lebovitch filed the case in 2007, challenging that several sections of the Criminal Code related to sex work violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Although it is legal to sell sex in Canada, many of the activities related to the sale of sex are considered criminal offences.

Specifically, SPOC's case takes issue with Section 213(1)(c), which makes it illegal to communicate for the purposes of prostitution; Section 210, which makes it illegal to run a common bawdy house; and Section 212(1)(j), which makes it illegal to live off the avails of prostitution.

These laws, says Scott, put sex workers at risk because it makes it illegal to take safety precautions, including hiring security staff and working in groups.

Sex Professionals of Canada's executive director Valerie Scott. (Marcus McCann photo)

A message posted on the SPOC website last night:

If this Court rules in our favour, it's all but certain that the Attorneys General of Canada and Ontario will appeal. If the ruling is against us, we will appeal, assuming we can raise the funds.  

At that point, we go to Appeal Court, aka, the Supreme Court of Ontario where we request leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

This is a battle well worth fighting. Our safety and, for some of us, our very lives depend on it.