It may be the world’s oldest profession, but it’s certainly not the safest. That could change if a late September ruling by Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel stands up in a Supreme Court appeal. This past Tuesday, Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute, a number of academics and Stella, a local community group that advocates for sex workers, joined to show their support for Justice Himel’s ruling.
In her decision, the judge determined that the current legislation surrounding prostitution is unconstitutional, since it limited the right to life, liberty, and security, as well as the freedom of expression of sex workers. According to Simone de Beauvoir Institute spokesperson Viviane Namaste, their support for Himel’s ruling is based on improving the safety of sex workers.
“We believe that sex workers have the right to live and work safely, in an environment free of violence and discrimination,” read an open letter presented by Namaste and other members of the group. The letter has collected 40 signatures from a collection of university and community supporters.
Stella’s general coordinator Emilie LalibertÃ© was optimistic about the ruling, but explained that the situation would not change overnight.
“We are under a pretty conservative government and it will be a long process through the courts,” said LalibertÃ©. “It might take five years, or even 10 years, but we know that a decision will be made. The key is to continue to educate people about sex workers.”
In addition, the group believes that women choosing sex work should have the ability to “define the conditions in which they work,” since exchanging sex for money is not illegal in Canada and people have the right to control their working conditions.
Current legislation may say that it is legal to exchange money for sex, but it is illegal to discuss what services may be exchanged for what price or even if protection is to be used. It’s also illegal for a number of sex workers to work together in safety under one roof, since it would be considered a bawdy house.
Following Justice Himel’s decision, the Quebec Council on the Status of Women denounced the ruling, saying “prostitution is the ultimate form of violence against women.” Namaste and her fellow supporters believe that there is more than one side to the argument.
“It’s more complicated than that,” said Namaste. “We’re against violence against women.” But Namaste explained that the current laws regarding sex workers often lead to situations that can be dangerous and ultimately end in violence.
The group hopes that Justice Himel’s ruling will eventually lead to a complete decriminalization of prostitution, much like in New Zealand.
“The ideal situation would be that prostitution is considered a job like any other, that the workers are given respect, that they’re able to work in good working conditions, and even have the opportunity to go to the authorities about poor working conditions,” said Namaste.
In 2003, New Zealand passed the Prostitution Reform Act, which decriminalized prostitution and allows sex workers to work in brothels or together in a safe location, as well as in escort agencies. Sex workers are also allowed to be self-employed or run their own brothel.