Ottawa
3 min

Sex workers deserve dignity and respect

As a sex worker currently working in Ottawa, I waited in excitement and fear early March 26 to hear the news of the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision regarding Canada’s prostitution laws.
 
When it was revealed that the court had upheld the communication provision, while striking down the bawdyhouse law (following a 12-month stay) and modifying the living-off-the-avails provision (which comes into effect in a month), I felt totally deflated.
 
I am a sex worker with a great deal of privilege, something I acknowledge and try to use to help those with less privilege. The court’s decision to uphold the communicating provision means the most vulnerable sex workers are still criminalized; in effect, they are the only sex workers currently criminalized. I am not fighting for some sex workers’ rights; I am fighting for all sex workers’ rights, but especially those who are most at risk under the law.
 
There is currently a predator in Ottawa targeting street-based workers, as former police chief Vern White attested when he warned street-based workers at Minwaashin Lodge, a centre for aboriginal women who have experienced abuse, in early December of last year.
 
Despite impassioned pleas from various community organizations, including Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau, Work, Educate, Resist (POWER) and the Elizabeth Fry Society of Ottawa, asking police to stop the street sweeps that target these vulnerable women, Ottawa Police Service refused.
 
Now, with the communication law upheld, police are free to continue to harass, abuse and arrest the most marginalized sex workers. This law was upheld by a vote of three to two. The judges supporting the communication law proposed that since the bawdyhouse law was now repealed, outdoor workers would be free to move indoors.
 
This faulty logic assumes that street-based workers will a) have the resources to do so and b) the desire to move indoors. It is ridiculous to deduce that street-based workers will be able to afford homes or places to work from. According to the three judges who upheld the law, the purpose of the provision — reducing nuisance and harm to communities — is legitimate and must be weighed against the harms it causes. 
 
I find it strange that workers who quietly ply their trade on the street are considered a nuisance, but the many students lining the streets trying to get passersby to donate to Green Peace, Amnesty International, the Red Cross or many other organizations are not, despite the fact that they solicit pedestrians.
 
What exactly is so horrible about someone asking you for a good time? If you are not interested, say no! It’s that simple. Not only that, but the communicating law is redundant. There are already laws in place to deal with noise, public disturbance and other alleged social nuisances.
 
Is the court seriously trying to argue that a condom on the street is more important than someone’s life? Because that’s what is at stake here: lives.
 
If police or government have a problem with street-based sex workers, they should address it by providing better social services, which government has instead been slashing. Eliminating one of the few avenues these sex workers have to survive is not the solution.
 
The government must stop cutting funding to community organizations that work with the most marginalized people.
 
Furthermore, in all of these discussions surrounding community well-being it is assumed that sex workers are outside of the community, that we are a nuisance to be curbed. I’ve got news for you: we are part of the community already and we’re not going anywhere. We live and work in Ottawa. We go to university, and our children attend local schools. We shop at the same stores, ride the bus and live in apartment complexes near you. Every day sex workers are doing their thing right under your nose.
 

Was the Court of Appeal’s decision a step in the right direction? Absolutely. But we’ve got a long way to go before sex workers are recognized as persons with dignity and respect whose work is considered legitimate and important by all.