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Sex worker and activist Susan Davis says the serial murder of prostitutes by Robert Pickton shifted attitudes toward prostitution: "No one here was unaffected, so there's a desire to try something new." (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Sex worker and activist Susan Davis says the serial murder of prostitutes by Robert Pickton shifted attitudes toward prostitution: "No one here was unaffected, so there's a desire to try something new." (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Kirk Makin

Why the courts must decriminalize prostitution Add to ...

Want some action? In most of Canada, sexual services are just a click, a phone call or a short stroll away. Some are overtly marketed as nude massage parlours or body rubs. Other hide behind coy euphemisms: holistic centre; shiatsu; gentlemen's spa.

After choosing from a small selection of attendants at one such establishment, Toronto's Studio 409, one is led into a room with soft lighting, a shower, lots of towels and a selection of oils. The attendant lists a smorgasbord of services that include nude massage, fetishes and body sliding.

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Body sliding?

"It can mean just about anything," the attendant explains, laughing.

And the same is true of Canada's prostitution laws, a legal regime riddled with arbitrariness and hypocrisy. Enforcement is wildly uneven, when it takes place at all.

Yet the current laws are a masterpiece of coherence compared with the chaos that will break out if the Ontario Court of Appeal this month strikes down several central provisions of the sex-trade laws.

The court has set aside five days the week of June 13 to hear a joint provincial and federal appeal of last year's lower-court decision that invalidated prohibitions against maintaining a brothel, communicating for the purposes of prostitution or living on its avails.

That decision hasn't come into effect because of the pending appeal, but all year its broader implications have stirred up commotion and heated debate. The big question is: Has the moment come when Canada is ready to decriminalize prostitution?



A ruling that the law is unconstitutional would bind all Ontario judges and spark immediate legal challenges in other provinces that would cite the decision.

Many experts believe that if the Crown appeal fails, the Harper government will not venture into the morass of prostitution law, "for the same reasons as they avoid dealing with abortion," says Mariana Valverde, a criminologist at the University of Toronto: "There is just too much to be lost and not much to be gained."

Theoretically, prostitution - exchanging sex for money - has long been legal in Canada. But in practice, virtually any method of buying or selling sex is prohibited. It's Canada's half-baked compromise to avoid all-out confrontation between two camps that split long before the 2010 decision: One faction, led by religious groups and rural Canadians, objects to any loosening of the laws that govern sex work, fearing decriminalization could lead to underage prostitution and human trafficking. The other favours liberalization, provided there is no increase in crime and public nuisance. Whenever the two sides clash, committees are charged to review the laws. They report back months later with sensible proposals. These are ignored, and the daisy chain begins anew.

That is, until now. The horrific Robert Pickton murders in B.C. raised the country's awareness of prostitutes' vulnerability, and now the Ontario court's scrupu- lously written decision is at last providing an opportunity to sort the problem out.

If you listen to the people most affected - the prostitutes - it becomes clear that the rational thing is to destigmatize the oldest profession, to help it be practised more safely and sanely, as the normal part of Canadian life that, like it or not, it is.

With the midafternoon sun streaming through a living-room window of her condo, 17 floors above Toronto's east end, Victoria Love (her trade name) lives a comfortable, middle-class existence after 15 years in the business. But she has to be cautious. "I skirt around the law," the slight 32-year-old says. "I go to places to meet my clients, and nobody knows what is going on. There is a lot of vulnerability, but I'm very careful to keep myself from running into legal problems."

Such great care, and good fortune, have prevented Ms. Love from getting hurt or coming onto the police radar. To avoid bawdy-house charges, she does only outcalls. And she avoids any customer who raises her suspicions.

Others, she knows, are not nearly so lucky. "There is an incredible variety of experiences in the sex industry," she says. "For some, the laws created conditions that led to horrific forms of violence. When the communicating law came into effect in the 1980s, we began to see missing women and severe forms of violence."

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