New Approach to the World's Oldest Profession

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The world's oldest profession might become a licensed business under a controversial plan put forward by a Bloc Quebecois committee.

The committee - which consists of Bloc MP's Réal Ménard, Caroline St. Hilaire and Pierrette Venne - spent a year examining the commercial sex trade.

Their report, which was tabled in June, recommended drastic changes to Canada's antiquated laws on prostitution. Among other measures, the committee called on federal and municipal authorities to set up legal "red light districts" for prostitutes.

"We need to have a place where it will be possible to offer these kind of services," explains Ménard. "It will not be in a residential area, it will not be close to a school or religious place. We will have supervision with social workers and police - it will be a safe place."

Street prostitution would be tolerated within these zones, as would licensed brothels. Hookers working in these areas would have to pay taxes and would be subject to possible medical checks. Anyone buying or selling sex outside of a designated red-light district would still be arrested.

After trying out this system for five years, officials would analyze the impact of these toleration zones, with an eye to implementing permanent legislation.

The Bloc Quebecois caucus will debate these proposals in the fall, when Parliament resumes. According to Ménard, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe has already indicated he favours the committee's conclusions. Ménard is optimistic his report will be accepted by the rest of the party as well.

If caucus gives their approval, Ménard might launch a private member's bill to nudge the federal government into implementing his plan.

Ménard says he hopes to "strike a balance" between sex workers and residents who live in neighbourhoods where prostitution is rife.

The former are highly vulnerable to arrest, assault and infection: "Because prostitution is illegal, girls who are sexually assaulted do not go to the police," said a sex-trade worker in the BQ report. Other prostitutes interviewed complained of discrimination and difficulties in accessing health and social services.At the same time, the report noted that neighbours dislike having "prostitution in front of their house," says Ménard.

Regulating the trade would confine sex workers to one part of town, thus appeasing property owners, explains the MP. Hookers could get health care and enjoy the protection of police. Clients who became abusive, or refused to wear condoms, could be reported to authorities. In addition to collecting tax revenue, the feds would save money by not having to fund criminal prosecutions of prostitutes.

This type of system is already in place in Germany, Holland, and parts of Australia and Nevada. These areas have legalized, or at least tolerated, prostitution to a degree, thus offering an existing model for Canada to base any future legislation on.

If nothing else, legal red-light districts would be a vast improvement over the way prostitution is currently handled, argues Ménard.

Under the Criminal Code, being a hooker is not an offence. It is illegal, however, to communicate for the purpose of selling sex, run a "bawdy house" (a residence where sex workers practise their craft) or live off the avails of a prostitute.

In practical terms, this makes it almost impossible to work as a prostitute without breaking the law.

Sex-trade workers are pleased that the BQ plan would change this situation.

At the same time, they have several concerns about the Bloc's proposal.

"Zoning will be problematic," notes Claire Thiboutot, executive director of Stella, a community agency representing Montreal sex workers. "A lot of people will probably say, yes, let's go decriminalize, but we don't want it in our backyard."

Ms. Thiboutot also says that the BQ initiative might create a two-tiered system in which prostitutes who worked within proscribed red-light districts enjoyed more rights than hookers who worked elsewhere.

Stella receives funding from Health Canada and the city of Montreal and is staffed by current and former sex workers. The organization offers counselling, a "bad trick" list of violent customers and lobbies for the rights of those within the sex trade.

Despite their objections, Ms. Thiboutot says Stella is still prepared to back the BQ proposal.

As it turns out, the plan will need as much support as possible, in the face of stiff opposition from both the feds and the public.

Last March, Montreal authorities tried to launch a pilot project in a downtown neighbourhood that was supposed to connect prostitutes with social workers. The plan was to use outreach tools to help hookers, not arrest them.

The project - which amounted to an informal version of the BQ proposal - had to be withdrawn following furious opposition from local residents. Many people in the area hated the idea of allowing hookers to work the streets without fear of arrest. They were especially angry about finding used condoms and dirty needles on their lawns and in children's playgrounds.

Ménard says the initiative failed because it was too localized.

"People are afraid if we just decriminalize in a specific area, all the sex workers will move into that area," he states.

The Bloc plan, however, calls for a nation-wide series of red-light districts, thus undercutting any fears of cross-country migration by prostitutes.

Even if the public can be won over, the BQ still has to contend with a skeptical federal government.

Judging from their past record, the Liberals seem less than interested in addressing the issue of legal sex work.

Back in 1995, the City of Toronto okayed a proposal to lobby Ottawa for the right to decriminalize prostitution. The idea was flatly rejected by then -justice minister Allan Rock a day after the vote was taken.

The federal Liberals fear that decriminalizing prostitution will be seen as giving government sanction to any activity that's widely frowned upon.

Ménard takes the opposite view: "It's not a moral debate," he insists. "It's a debate about peace in our community."

Peace that some MPs think they can achieve by offering new terms in the age-old war against the sex-trade.

Nate Hendley is a freelance journalist who lives in Toronto. He has written extensively for This Magazine, the National Post and eye weekly, among other publications.

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