Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, October 5, 2023 7:01PM EDT
OTTAWA – A group that challenged the constitutionality of laws criminalizing some aspects of prostitution is vowing to bring its fight to the Ontario Court of Appeal – even as some groups that support criminalization call on Ottawa to better protect vulnerable people in the sex trade.
“Criminalization takes away our opportunities,” said Jenn Clamen, national co-ordinator for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, which represents 25 sex-worker organizations across Canada.
“What sex workers are saying is, ‘Yes, we need more opportunity. We don’t need less opportunity.”’
In a decision last month, Ontario Superior Court Justice Robert Goldstein upheld prostitution-related criminal offences brought in by the former Conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper in 2014.
Clamen’s group argued that the laws, which prohibit paying for sexual services, violated the rights of sex workers by fostering stigma and preventing them from obtaining meaningful consent before engaging with clients.
But Goldstein found that sections of the Criminal Code outlawing communications or the stopping of traffic for the purpose of selling sexual services were constitutionally compliant and do not prevent sex workers from taking safety measures, engaging the services of non-exploitative third parties or seeking police assistance.
The ruling said that the law as it’s currently written balances the prohibition of “the most exploitative aspects of the sex trade” with protecting sex workers from legal prosecution.
The Women’s Equality Coalition, which represents women’s groups that support the laws as they currently stand, held a press conference on Parliament Hill on Thursday to celebrate the decision – and to call for better support from the federal government.
The coalition had intervened in the case, arguing that sex work is a form of violence by men against women and that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should not be there to protect it.
Hilla Kerner from the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, one of the organizations in the coalition, said if women are provided with alternatives and financial stability, they won’t have to work in the industry.
She and other advocates said there should be more federal support for drug detox and long-term recovery programs, safe and affordable housing, child care, education and a livable income.
Clamen said those are reasonable things any Canadian would want, but putting sex workers at the centre of that fight isn’t the way to go about it.
“When we talk about agency, we’re talking about the capacity of women to make decisions for themselves, regardless of their circumstances,” said Clamen.
“And people who do sex work are most definitely exercising that agency.”
She said she worries that the coalition’s framing of the issue could further stigmatize sex work and sex workers, instead of targeting poverty and violence.
Clamen’s group plans to fight the Ontario Superior Court decision at the province’s appeals court.
If sex work is not decriminalized, she said, sex workers will continue to face adverse effects – like losing another job if an employer finds out they are engaged in sex work, or having their children taken away from them.
Indigenous and racialized women are affected the most, said Clamen.
“I’ve been doing this activism for 22 years now,” she said.
“And it’s frustrating because people still don’t recognize sex workers as human beings.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 5, 2023.
– With files from Tyler Griffin