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Sex laws hurt AIDS strategies

Legal group's report injects prostitution into social agenda

The authors of a report calling for the decriminalization of prostitution hope it’ll become a political priority — although they’re not holding their breath.

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network released a report in December, in the middle of the federal election, calling for the repeal of laws used against soliciting and bathhouses. The report says that the use of these laws makes it harder for sex workers to protect themselves from violence and from AIDS.

Richard Elliott, the deputy director of the network, said at the time of the report’s release that he doubted it would become a political priority.

“I’m doubt that it’s going to be near the top of politicians’ agendas,” said Elliott. “I’m not sure they would see this as a vote-getter. But we have succeeded in getting more media coverage than we expected in the course of an election.”

Elliott said the network had originally planned to release the report at the same time as the report of a federal parliamentary committee –headed by British Columbia NDP MP Libby Davies — that was looking at prostitution, sex workers and other sex laws. That committee was disbanded when the election was called, and its report will only be released if the new Conservative government reconstitutes the committee.

The network’s report calls for the repeal of Sections 210-214 of the Criminal Code, laws that make it illegal to solicit, to live off the avails of prostitution or to run or be found in a bawdyhouse.

Elliott said the network has spent the last two years researching and assembling the report, including extensive consultations with public health, community organizations and sex workers.

“It was the first time, I believe, that there was a national gathering of sex workers to talk about how the law makes sex workers more vulnerable to HIV,” said Elliott. “We also did a lot of local interviews, particularly with aboriginal sex workers.”

The report looks at how sex laws put prostitutes under constant threat of arrest, meaning they usually have less time to analyze the risks of a particular client or to negotiate terms like use of a condom. The fact that they face arrest also means they’re reluctant to seek help from police when faced with dangerous clients.

The report points to these laws as contributing to the disappearances and murders of hundreds of sex workers in recent years, especially in Vancouver and Edmonton.

The report calls for sex workers’ rights to be protected under the Charter Of Rights And Freedoms, for sex work to be covered under employment standards and occupational health and safety laws and for sex workers to be included in any law reform process.

Elliott said that Canada’s queer community has been particularly supportive of the proposed changes.

“This is about the state being in the bedrooms of the nation and I think there has been an awareness within the gay and lesbian community. With the bawdy-house laws, they have areas in common cause with sex workers.”

But Elliott said he does worry that recent advances, such as same-sex marriage, may mean less active support from Canadian queers.

“That may be changing as victories lead to greater rights. Maybe that divide is growing now. I would be disappointed if that were the case.”

As for the general population, Elliott said he does think that people are increasingly open to the ideas.

“There’s been a general consciousness-raising towards sexual freedom. Advances in gay and lesbian rights have played a large part. And tragically, some of what’s happened in terms of violence towards sex workers has horrified people.

“This is a sexual minority that is vulnerable, that has been stigmatized by the law. I don’t think it’s a real far stretch for Canadians.”