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‘Platitudes, moralism & band-aid solutions’

Parliamentary report hangs sex workers out to dry

Three years in the making, a Dec 13 parliamentary report on how to make life on the streets less dangerous for sex workers has attracted mostly bad reviews from activists.

“It is vague in the extreme. The recommendations offer nothing,” says Glenn Betteridge, a senior policy analyst for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

The report, tabled by a subcommittee of the Standing Committee On Justice And Human Rights, acknowledges that “the status quo with respect to Canada’s laws dealing with prostitution is unacceptable, and that the laws that exist are unequally applied.” But a major divide between Conservative members and members from the Liberals, New Democrats and the Bloc Québécois meant a lack of consensus – and solid recommendations.

“This report shows that you always end up with the lowest common denominator if you work through Parliament,” says Michael Hendricks, a Montreal activist. “I attended some of the subcommittee’s hearings, and they had a chance to hear from the horse’s mouth how the current laws endanger sex trade workers. None of that is reflected in the report.”

Prompted in part by the large number of deaths and disappearances of female sex workers over the years in Vancouver’s downtown eastside, the subcommittee’s work spanned three Parliaments and two elections. It toured the country, hearing from more than 300 witnesses including sex workers themselves. But the report paid no heed to testimony calling for the decriminalization of prostitution.

The all-party portions of the report call for more research and education, and condemn the exploitation of underaged prostitutes and the trafficking in persons and other coercive practices. It also points to the double standard in existing laws where a small minority of street-level prostitutes garner a disproportionate amount of law enforcement attention while those who work indoors are usually ignored.

“The subcommittee had a unique opportunity to truly improve the lives and well being of thousands of women, men and trans people working in the sex trade,” says Kara Gillies, with Maggie’s Toronto Prostitutes’ Community Service Centre. “Instead, their new report offers platitudes, moralism and band-aid solutions.”

At least one committee member agrees with her.

“The report doesn’t take on all it should. Decriminalization is needed now,” says NDP member Libby Davies.

She points a finger at Conservative members, particularly chair Art Hanger.

“Art Hanger did everything in his power to slow down the release of this report,” says Davies.

In their portion of the report, the Conservative MPs, Hanger and Pat Davidson, rejected calls for criminalization.

“[Conservative members] believe that the most realistic, compassionate and responsible approach to dealing with prostitution begins by viewing most prostitutes as victims,” states the report. “Unlike other parties, the Conservatives do not believe it is possible for the state to create isolated conditions in which the consensual provision of sex in exchange for money does not harm others. They believe that all prostitution has a social cost.”

But passages supported by the subcommittee’s NDP, Bloc Québécois and Liberal members refer to prostitution as a health issue and call for “concrete efforts” to increase safety for sex workers, as well as programs to support those who want to leave the business.

Although they write, “sexual activities between consenting adults that do not harm others, whether or not payment is involved, should not be prohibited by the state,” the three left-leaning parties fail to recommend the repeal of Criminal Code sections specific to prostitution and other forms of consensual sex between adults. Those include communicating for the purpose of prostitution, operating a premise for the purpose of prostitution or committing indecent acts — called a common bawdy house — or living off the avails of prostitution.

Testimony before the subcommittee’s hearings identified the prohibition on public communication for the purpose of prostitution as a key element in isolating and endangering street-level sex workers.

“Why doesn’t this study just come out and say what ‘concrete efforts’ they are talking about?” asks Valerie Scott of the advocacy group Sex Professionals Of Canada. “What adult sex professionals who choose to be in this business need — and there are many of us — is the removal of the communicating, bawdy house and procuring laws, and fewer cowardly politicians to achieve this,” says Scott.

Hendricks predicts that changes to Canada’s sex laws will come from the courts, not Parliament. A constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws is expected to be filed early in 2007 by a team of lawyers and students working on the issue.

Peter Bochove, a Toronto bathhouse owner and head of the Committee To Abolish The 19th Century, is less critical of the report, but agrees that real change is more likely to come through court action than through a divided Parliament dominated by Harper Conservatives.

“The subcommittee did a good job and the conclusions go in the right direction,” Bochove says, “but there is no hope for change with the current government. As long as this government continues to stonewall on the issue of sex law reform it is complicit with murder.”

The report also fails to address the Criminal Code’s bawdyhouse provisions, which have been used to justify raids on gay bathhouses and other sexual spaces.

John Lowman, a researcher at Simon Fraser University who has studied prostitution for decades, sees a few good points in the report.

“The first point I would make is that this report and its research gives a good portrait of prostitution in Canada today, and listened to sex-trade workers far more than any earlier government effort. It is a very important document, if only because it forced the Harper Conservatives to reveal their radical moral agenda on this matter,” he says.

“They have been flushed out, and flushed is the appropriate word. Canadians can now see just how moralistic and political their agenda is. They take the same view of prostitution as the American State Department and radical feminist groups,” says Lowman.

Davies, too, believes the report represents some progress.

“This is the work of an all-party committee of Parliament and, as such, has more weight than the Fraser Commission report 20 years ago. I hope it will give groups that advocate decriminalization some support and evidence, especially with the Picton trial coming up,” she says. A British Columbia man, Robert Picton, was arrested in 2002 and faces 27 charges of first-degree murder in relation to the 27 women who went missing from Vancouver’s downtown eastside.

“I am determined to keep pressing for change,” says Davies. “The report isn’t an end point. It is the beginning of the next necessary steps.”