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Sex work shouldn’t be a partisan issue: Davies

Goodhandy's hosts fundraiser for SPOC court challenge

A fundraiser to benefit Sex Professionals Of Canada’s (SPOC) constitutional challenge against laws that put sex workers in danger was held at Goodhandy’s, a Church St bar and cabaret, Jun 10.

While prostitution is legal in Canada, a number of provisions in the Criminal Code Of Canada restrict how sex workers can legally work. Under Section 210 (keeping a common bawdy house), it is effectively illegal to practise sex work indoors, forcing sex workers to the streets. Under Section 212 (living on the avails of prostitution) sex workers — and anyone they live with or are habitually in the company of — can face criminal penalties for supporting themselves with wages earned through sex work. And under Section 213 (communicating for the purpose of prostitution), it is illegal for sex workers to solicit money for sex in any public place.

SPOC’s challenge seeks to strike down the three sections.

British Columbia NDP MP Libby Davies, whose East Vancouver riding is home to many sex workers including many of the murdered women for whose deaths Robert Pickton is now standing trial, was on hand for the event, and spoke of the need to protect the rights of sex workers.

“I’ve seen too many sex workers who’ve been violated, assaulted, murdered, and the victims of law enforcement,” she said. “Prostitutes across Canada are still at risk. If any other group in society was violated and murdered at the rate they are, it would be a national issue.”

Davies lamented that the current federal government has shelved the report of the parliamentary subcommittee on solicitation laws that she helped write, but offered hope that SPOC will bring the issue to the public’s attention and force the government to act.

“We’re facing a Conservative government going in the opposite direction. We have an uphill battle,” she said. “It’s about raising visibility in the media about sex workers and how they don’t have rights.

“That doesn’t mean you stop pushing. Whenever you deal with rights, you face people in authority who aren’t supportive. It’s about taking on and organizing broad public support and forcing the government to act.”

While the NDP does not have an official position on sex work, Davies says she will submit a priority resolution on the issue at the next NDP policy convention, scheduled for 2008.

“It shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” she says. “It may take a legal challenge to press the government, but I hope it’s not just left to the courts and that Parliament plays a role.”

The case could have cost SPOC hundreds of thousands of dollars if legal services hadn’t been provided pro bono by Osgoode Hall law professor Allan Young. Young appealed to the attendees to divorce their individual beliefs about morality from their opinions about the sex work.

“Our case is about life and dignity,” he said. “No matter what you think about the sex trade, the one thing it shouldn’t be is illegal.”

Former SPOC executive director Valerie Scott explained that the laws are not only harmful, but they are vague and expose sex workers to unnecessary legal harassment. Noting that there is no clear definition of what constitutes “living off the avails,” and reminding guests that they were offered SPOC matchbooks each with a nickel inside earlier in the evening, she told the crowd of supporters “any of you who have accepted this token from me are now, according to the criminal code, my pimp,” to cheers. “Ooh, I’m gonna be busy tonight,” she added with a laugh.

SPOC will need an estimated $50,000 to fund its legal challenge. Representatives declined to say how much money was raised at the event, but an anonymous donor contributed $1,000 on top of what was collected at the door.

Mandy Goodhandy told supporters that the club is hoping to hold monthly SPOC fundraisers. The next event is scheduled for Sun, Jul 22.