The Supreme Court of Canada ruled recently that Canadian prostitution laws are unconstitutional and I support its decision, not because I condone prostitution, but because I believe that if individuals can sell their bodies legally, they should be able to do so safely.
Canada’s highest court voted unanimously in December to overrule three laws prohibiting various aspects of prostitution, which collectively banned brothels, forbade individuals from living on the avails of prostitution, and inhibited “customers” from communicating for sexual services. Parliament now has twelve months to reconsider the existing legislation before these rulings take effect and, unless the government tables legislation prohibiting prostitution itself, the Court’s decision should stand. It makes sex work safer for all parties involved, whereas prohibitive laws preclude this option altogether.
Abolishing these laws is a promising development. Similar to harsh drug laws, anti-prostitution laws have not ended prostitution or the violence it creates. In addition, these laws prohibit sex workers from exercising basic rights. Open communication about sex work, for instance, could lead to proper screening and negotiations between prostitutes and their clients, which could reduce the likelihood of violence and disease transmission and help both parties identify their expectations. Declaring legal income earned from prostitution could also allow sex workers to hire security, thereby reducing the probability of assault or harassment. Likewise, brothels are a safer alternative for both workers and clients.
Canada’s most profitable brothels were once located in the Atlantic Canada’s port cities and included opportunities to also drink and gamble. Despite banning these establishments, however, the Canadian sex trade continues to grow. The extent to which anti-prostitution laws have attempted to keep this fact hidden, though, has caused the industry to become more dangerous.
It is suspected that legalizing prostitution leads to lower rape rates, as well as lower rates of sexually transmitted disease and infection, in most cases. In fact, Canada’s anti-prostitution laws have caused many prostitutes to put themselves at risk and avoid reporting anything to the authorities because of the likelihood of arrest.
If prostitution were illegal, it would make sense for the associated practises to be as well. Yet, if the Canadian government permits prostitution, as it currently does, it is only right that it takes steps to ensure the safety of prostitutes (or, at the very least, their right to safety). This, in turn, will undoubtedly raise future questions about prostitutes, their employment status, labour protections, and various other issues related to prostitution.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s ruling aligns Canada’s prostitution laws with current realities and it reveals the consequences of pursuing legislation that marginalizes activities deemed socially unacceptable by the public and, subsequently, penalizes those who participate in them.
Rachel Lowe is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute