Sex work: the Charter v. the Criminal Code

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With very little chance a federal Conservative government will change sex worker legislation, a group has come together to take the Criminal Code to court.

It may well have been the first ever fundraiser in a racy night club with a can-can burlesque troupe to support a Charter challenge for sex worker rights in Canada.

Hosted by Goodhandy's Night Club in Toronto, and the Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), special guests included Osgoode Hall professor and lawyer Alan Young, the Saucy Tarts, Shemale entertainer Mandy Goodhandy and DJ Nik Red, who launched the Red Light Night June 10 to raise funds for an important Charter challenge.

The legal challenge, led by professor Alan Young, began last week in the Ontario Superior Court. SPOC and others are challenging three provisions of the Criminal Code related to Canada's solicitation laws that they hope to strike down as violations of sections 7 (the right to life, liberty and security of the person) and 2(b) (freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Bringing this case is of utmost importance because despite the fact that prostitution is a legal occupation, the current Criminal Code provisions operate to deny sex workers safe legal options for conducting their legal business,” says Young. The legal challenge seeks the invalidation of sections 210 (keeping a bawdy-house), 212(1)(j) (living on the avails of prostitution), and section 213 (communicating for the purposes of prostitution).

“Ultimately, this fight is destined to go all the way to the Supreme Court,” notes Young. He says modest funding from legal aid will run out quickly. The case is supported by several lawyers and law student volunteers who are providing their services pro bono.

From 2003 to 2006, I participated in an all-party parliamentary committee that studied extensively the current laws pertaining to prostitution. After cross-Canada hearings, both in public and in-camera (a closed session), there was near unanimous agreement from the over 300 witnesses heard by the committee that the present regime concerning prostitution is unworkable, contradictory and harmful.

Although the committeeâe(TM)s report, issued December 2006, did not go as far as I had hoped in calling for law reform and decriminalization, the committee did agree that the status quo and application of the current laws is contradictory and unequal. The full report can be found here.

I believe that consenting adult sexual activities, whether or not payment is involved, and that do not harm others, should not be prohibited by the state.

The federal government must come to terms with the contradictions and enormous harm caused by the present laws and engage in a process of law reform, leading to the decriminalization of these provisions.

However, the Conservative government in its official response to the committeeâe(TM)s report has made it clear it will not move in this direction.

As we saw with same-sex marriage, groundbreaking court challenges and decisions compelled governments to respond and change the law. This case may be another example of that. Even so, political pressure must be maintained, as Parliament has a responsibility to ensure the rights and safety of sex workers. I certainly intend to continue to do all I can, to keep that pressure up, Conservative government or not.

For too long, the voice of sex workers and their rights have been cast aside by moralistic attitudes and archaic laws that have created enormous harm, violence and death.

This case and the questions it challenges us to consider, provides an important opportunity to improve the rights, safety, and lives of sex workers. It represents months of hard work by legal and community advocates with supporting affidavits from sex workers, academics, and experts, as well as parliamentary and government reports on the issue.

The fundraising appeal June 10, at Goodhandy's was a fun, unique way, to literally “kick off” the fundraising drive and raise awareness about the issue. Mandy Goodhandy who hosted the fundraiser, hopes Red Light Night will become a regular event at the night club.

Information about the case and how to support it, can be found by contacting SPOC.

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