Who won in Canada: Pimps or prostitutes?

A prostitute approaches a car in Paris.
Image caption Opponents say the Canadian court's decision will increase sex exploitation

For most of the year, the drive to enact new laws against prostitution, such as France's recent move to increase the penalties on purchasers of sex acts, have garnered international attention. That debate was turned on its head last week, with the decision by the Canadian Supreme Court to strike down three of that nation's anti-prostitution laws.

The court invalidated laws that make it illegal to keep a brothel, communicate in public about acts of prostitution or live off its proceeds. It has set off debate about the morality of sex work and whether the ruling will be good or bad for prostitutes.

Andrew Coyne, writing for Canada's National Post, argues that the court's decision has more to do with bad law than with judicial activism. In an attempt to prevent pimps from exploiting prostitutes and keep sex work out of the public eye, legislators ended up putting the health and safety of prostitutes at greater risk.

"It was not necessary, to strike at pimps, to forbid a prostitute from employing anyone at all," he writes. "It was not necessary, to protect others from nuisance, to forbid prostitutes from working in any safe locations anywhere, or having done so, to forbid any efforts to protect themselves, such as screening clients or negotiating conditions."

On the other hand, two filmmakers who recently made a documentary about prostitution, Tricked, call the Canadian court's decision a "triumph for those who live off and enjoy the commercial sex industry".

"Tragically, it's a time bomb for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable and exploited women, girls and boys," Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson write. "By the end of our extensive investigation, focused on the United States, we shared a conclusion: the commercial sexual sale of someone's body is not empowering, does not offer gender equality and in most cases is a form of modern day slavery."

The fact that prostitution is a risky business, writes Coyne, should not be grounds for making it illegal to practice more safely, however. "Coal mining is a risky business, which people are free to enter or not," he writes. "That doesn't mean the state is entitled to forbid mines from operating safely."

At its heart, the debate is about who sex workers are and how to balance the interests of those who enter the business willingly versus those who are forced into it and exploited.

"The rights of the small percentage of voluntary sex workers should not take precedence over the lives, bodies and souls of those who are forced to work in prostitution as sex slaves," write Wells and Wasson.

"The takeaway here is that prostitutes are not, by and large, 'happy hookers', but victims," writes Barbara Kay in the National Post. "The politically correct refuse to judge their choice, but many prostitutes (to their credit) judge themselves.

"And as victims, what they don't need is professed admiration for their alleged entrepreneurialism from those who would move heaven and earth to prevent their own daughters taking up such a life. What they do need is help to escape their bondage."

Alan Shanoff of the Toronto Sun counters that foes of prostitution like to equate the business with human trafficking, but that is merely a diversion. "If we want to reduce the incidence of sex slaves and human trafficking, we need to put more resources into investigating and prosecuting those offences," he writes. "But attempting to enforce a moral code by criminalizing prostitution, or the activities surrounding it, is a waste of resources."

Or is prostitution just a point on the continuum of sexual relations between women and men? (Call it the "you pay for it one way or another" view.) Christie Blatchford writes:

Maybe it's because in my observation, there is so often a quid pro quo aspect to relationship sex - gorgeous young women with rich old guys, older gay men with beautiful boys, famous people with other famous people, lifeguards with lawyers - that I am hard-pressed to take offence when the transaction is merely franker.

According to Tara Klage, in the Guelph Mercury, those who compare sex work to other kinds of jobs are making a fundamental mistake, however.

"Sex is not the same as unclogging a toilet," she writes. "Because of the vulnerabilities of the people who get sucked into it, the world's oldest profession requires a level of scrutiny and vastly more public involvement across a spectrum of services, from law enforcement to social welfare supports. Legalization is not the answer, if for no other reason than because no man anywhere at any time should ever be permitted to view a woman - any woman regardless of choices, background or personal circumstances - as a collection of apertures available for rent."

The whole debate is now back in the hands of the Canadian Parliament, which has a year to sort out how (or if) to replace the invalid laws. HuffPost Canada media critic JJ McCullough writes that an outright ban would probably run afoul of the court once more, but a decriminalise-and-regulate law is going to be difficult to pass.

"It's entirely possible nothing will be done," he writes. "We may recall that several decades ago the Supreme Court asked parliament to write some new abortion laws after declaring the old ones inadequate. They're still waiting."

Maybe the real winner in Canada is politics as usual.

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