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POWER to Feds: hooking laws don’t work

New Ottawa group fighting Canada's sex laws

POWER PLAY. Sex workers are getting organized, after a meeting in February planned in part by Nicholas Little of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa. Credit: Paul Galipeau

Canada’s prostitution laws don’t work, don’t respond to community concerns and should be repealed. That is the message sex workers will be sending to federal lawmakers in the midst of an election at a rally on Parliament Hill on Sep 18.

This is the first time that sex workers have formed a united front in Ottawa on the issue. The newly formed group is called Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work Educate and Resist (POWER). The Hill event will be followed by a “coming-out party” at the Byward Market’s Lookout Bar.

Nicholas Little, the men’s outreach coordinator at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO), says that POWER was established at an ACO-sponsored community forum during last February’s Snowblower festival.

The festival’s event, Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex Workers, informed community members about the sex trade from sex workers’ perspectives. Afterwards, at a private meeting where sex workers discussed how best to confront common issues, POWER was born.

Critics of the anti-hooking laws have long argued that they only endanger sex workers by encouraging them to avoid taking precautions and work in unsafe areas.

According to Statistics Canada data from 2004, 93 per cent of all prostitution charges are made under section 213, which targets anyone who “stops or attempts to stop any person or in any manner communicates or attempts to communicate with any person” for the purposes of prostitution.

Across the province, consensual, commercial sex has been sliding from police radars. It’s down 24 percent from 2000, according to analysis by Canadian Press. And while 2007 was a much quieter year than 2000 in Ottawa, with charges down over thirty percent, the survey doesn’t account for hookers who are harassed or taken in to custody by police but ultimately never charged.

The Ottawa Police Service introduced a street team in Nov 2007 to arrest prostitutes and deal with other street-level crimes.

Chris Bruckert, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa and former sex-trade worker, disagrees with the enforcement of laws that she says make workers “much more vulnerable to violence.”

“When there is a fear of being watched, [sex workers] don’t take the time to carefully assess a client, and they hop into cars much more quickly,” she says. “The laws actively prevent sex workers from developing strategies that would make them safer.”

Sex workers are more likely to work alone in isolated neighbourhoods, for example. On their own, they can’t watch out for each other and are more vulnerable.

Ottawa Police, however, have a different opinion. The force started to crack down on sex workers last year and now regularly conduct neighbourhood “sweeps” that target street-level sex workers.

During the most recent sweep on Aug 18, police brought 65 charges against 20 women in prostitution-related offences.

Sergeant Kal Ghadban says prostitution has become a priority for the police, in part because of spin-off crimes that he said tend to be connected to the sex trade.

“If they’re not out conducting prostitution, they have to get their money other ways. They could be breaking into cars; they could be breaking into homes,” says Ghadban. “There are all sorts of spin-off crimes that are a result.”

Little and Bruckert say that number is evidence that street-level prostitutes are overwhelmingly targeted by police and others are left alone.

“What we know is that only about 15 per cent of sex work is street-based. The vast majority is not street-based, and the police aren’t interested in that,” says Little.

Bruckert agrees that the folks on the corner are the ones that bear the brunt of police harassment.

“[Charges] are almost always levied against street-level sex workers — at the most marginal, but the most visible, sex workers,” Bruckert says.

If Bruckert could dictate public policy, she says, her first step would be quite simply ignoring the existing laws, and then repealing them. But what are the odds of the Canadian public accepting decriminalization — de facto or otherwise?

“I think most people are fairly ambivalent towards sex work. It’s consensual sexual activity between adults. I think for most people, it’s a bit of a non-issue,” Bruckert says.