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Legal Challenge to Anti-Prostitution Laws Reaches Canada's Supreme Court

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The hearing taking place this week could overturn laws restricting sex workers' rights. This Thursday, June 13, Canada’s Supreme Court will hear the case of Bedford v. Canada, brought by applicant Terri-Jean Bedford, a dominatrix, and two other women who have worked in the sex industry. The women are claiming the federal laws regulating prostitution are discriminatory and unconstitutional, and this hearing will be the last stage in a six-year attempt to have the measures overturned. If previous rulings by two lower courts are any indication, the Supreme Court should rule at least partly in the applicants’ favor.

In order to understand the importance of the case, it’s necessary to know a bit about the current Canadian laws. Exchanging sexual services for money is legal throughout Canada, but many acts relating to it are still criminalized. These measures have effectively forced sex workers to continue working in the shadows and have had a particularly harsh impact on lower-class workers with fewer resources, lending credence to the argument that the laws are discriminatory. The measure banning public communication about the selling of sex, for example, has a disproportionate impact on outdoor sex workers. Since these street-based workers initially interact with their clients on a ‘stroll’ rather than over the Internet or the phone, they must get into men's cars before negotiating their prices and services in order to obey the law. This drastically increases the risks that a client or potential client will turn violent. Further, “operation of common bawdy-houses” also remains criminalized, which means that providing sexual services out of a stable in-call location is illegal. Advocates have rightly pointed out that this pushes sex workers to do outcalls, which are more likely to put them in danger.

Vancouver resident Sheryl Kiselbach is one of several current and former sex workers who will be appearing before the court to testify against the measures. Her lawyer, Katrina Pacey, recently spoke to the Vancouver Sun about the significance of Bedford v. Canada. In her interview, Pacey points out that sex worker rights are a human rights issue and notes how dangerous current Canadian laws are for people in the sex industry. She sums up the current legal situation by saying, “sex work is fundamentally legal, however it is impossible to do it safely.”

Contrary to some people’s beliefs, Pacey continues, fully decriminalizing sex work will not lead to further exploitation of disadvantaged women; it will help the women who are already the most vulnerable. “Being safe while you are in the industry—not facing egregious violence, not being traumatized, not having a criminal record, not suffering the health consequences of criminalization—will then assist sex workers in making whatever decision is best for them.” Pacey will be joined by human rights groups, women’s rights groups, and organizations that address the needs of patients with HIV in making the case for sex workers’ rights.  Support has spread nation-wide, as sex workers and their allies demonstrated this past weekend in cities across Canada. 


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