Commentary  Streetwalkers come indoors

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s decision to overturn three laws restricting the mobility and security of sex workers last week marks an extraordinary victory for human rights in Canada. Bedford v. Canada overturned three provisions in the Criminal Code of Canada: laws prohibiting living off an income procured by prostitution, which made it illegal for sex workers to support other people with their earnings; performing sex work indoors, which forced them to ply their trade in the streets; and communicating for the purpose of soliciting sex. The decision does not affect laws covering underage prostitution or human trafficking.

These laws shamed and endangered sex workers by restricting their access to health resources and support systems, forcing them to conduct their work clandestinely, and delegitimizing sex work in the eyes of the public and the law. The decision to repeal these prohibitions will improve conditions for sex workers by enabling the industry to be regulated with safety standards, workers’ compensation, and guilds, and recognizing sex workers as citizens entitled to the same legal protections as the rest of society – like the ability to call the police if assaulted on the job without fear of arrest.

The Harper government has announced that it will appeal the Ontario ruling toward the end of this month. This appeal, which places greater importance on preserving an antiquated and discriminatory image of societal purity than protecting the lives of minoritized persons, should be strongly condemned by opposition members of Parliament. It is incumbent upon them to begin the work of decriminalizing sex work and elaborating guidelines and regulations, following the proposals of sex workers’ organizations like the Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC). If upheld at the Supreme Court level, the Ontario ruling will set a national precedent for future cases involving the rights of sex workers. This would make it easier for sex workers in provinces outside of Ontario to appeal similar prostitution laws, and for the government to take new steps toward removing the dangers and stigma involved in sex work.

Reforming sex work laws could save lives. To make sure Ottawa takes steps toward decriminalization and regulation, you should write your MPs now. You can also educate yourself through organizations like SPOC and Stella. At this crucial moment in Canadian human rights history, solidarity is needed across the board.