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Sex laws hurt AIDS strategies: Report

Legal group injects prostitution into election

The authors of a new report calling for the decriminalization of prostitution hope it’ll become a federal election issue – although they’re not holding their breath.

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network released a report this month 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.

“I doubt that it’s going to be near the top of politicians’ agendas,” says Richard Elliott, the deputy director of the network. “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 says 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 would only be released if a new government reconstitutes the committee.

“Our hope with this report was that it would feed into the work of the committee,” says Elliott. “We had appeared before the committee, and we’re worried that their work will be lost. Our feeling was that our report was ready to go. We thought, ‘Let’s give it a try and see if we can get some attention.'”

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 bawdy house – laws that have been used against bathhouses.

Elliott says 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,” says 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 claims these laws have contributed 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 says 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 says 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 says that while he does not expect the issues to sway many voters during the election, he does think that people are more 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. 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.”