Wednesday 19 December 2018


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When I was studying criminal law at the University of Toronto, back in the early seventies, I wrote a paper on that issue and in that paper, I said that prostitution should be legal. I will explain why as I proceed with this article.

Laws pertaining to prostitution introduced by the Canadian Conservative government in 2014, make it illegal to purchase sexual services, illegal to advertise such services and illegal to live on the material benefits from prostitution. Even though it isn't illegal to sell prostitution services, in some places in Canada, it is definitely illegal to sell sex in public areas such as sidewalks.

Many people resent prostitutes accosting them on the sidewalks and their cars. “Hey, Honey. Would you like to have some fun with me?” One night when I was walking to my parked car, a woman approached me and asked the previous question. She was standing next to a bright street light. When I saw her face, I realized that she was older than my late grandmother. I enjoy having sex with the opposite sex but I draw the line when they are old women with the exception of my wife.  

I actually felt sorry for the old woman in the car. Prostitutes don’t sell their bodies because they enjoy having sex with men who are strangers to them.

Many and perhaps most prostitutes sell their bodies because they are unemployed and need money to survive. Of course, I am not referring to the professional women (call girls and escorts) who have sex with business men and charge hundreds of dollars to their customers for a session.    

The Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s existing laws last December (2017) – namely, a ban on keeping or being in a “bawdy house,” or brothel; a ban on “living on the avails of prostitution,” since largely reworded as the “material benefit” ban; and a ban on communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution. The court generally said the provisions violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms  by threatening sex workers’ rights to life, liberty and security of the person. That’s essential, because critics are warning the new bill does the same thing, and is therefore vulnerable to a Charter challenge. “The new bill does not respect our constitutional right to life, security and liberty,” sex worker Emily Lalibert√© told the committee.

Prostitution and the laws around it have dominated the Canadian Parliament Hill chatter. The second stage of the federal government's race to pass a bill governing prostitution by the end of the year 2018, has begun, with the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee beginning hearings. This comes after the House of Commons justice committee's rare summer sitting on Bill C-36, which was tabled in June, six months after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down some of Canada's prostitution laws. Dozens of witnesses have spoken about the bill, with some supporting it and others calling for it to be amended or scrapped altogether.

The bill criminalized the buying of sex or obtaining it for money the sexual services of a prostitute. The penalties included jail time – up to five years in some cases which would only apply to pimps and minimum cash fines that go up after a first offence.

What constitutes a sexual service?  The bill as it is, doesn’t describe those words.  A government legal brief, submitted to the committee as it considered the bill, says the courts have found lap-dancing and masturbation in a massage parlor counting as a "sexual service" or prostitution, but not stripping or the production of pornography.

What about sex workers. They also face penalties under the bill, though the government says it is largely trying to go after the buyers of sex. Under the bill, it would be illegal for a sex worker to discuss the sale of sex in certain public areas such as sidewalks etc.  The government amendment appears set to reduce what areas would be protected and it would also be illegal for a person to get a “material benefit” from the sale of sexual services by anyone other than themselves. such as pimps or boyfriends in which some critics have warned that the latter clause could, for instance, prevent sex workers from working together, which some do to improve their  safety.

What about those men who work with the sex workers? The law states that any person who “receives a financial or other material benefit, knowing that it is obtained by or derived directly or indirectly” from the sale of a “sexual service,” faces up to 10 years in prison. This excludes those who have “a legitimate living arrangement” with a sex worker, those who receives the benefit “as a result of a legal or moral obligation” of the sex worker, those who sell the sex worker a “service or on the same terms to the general public, and those who offer a private service to sex workers but do so for a fee “proportionate” to the service and so long as they do not “counsel or encourage” sex work.

Can sex workers advertise their sex services? This is a key plank of the bill, which makes it a crime to “knowingly advertise an offer to provide sexual services for consideration,” or money. This could potentially include newspapers, such as weekly publications that include personal ads from sex workers, or websites that publish similar ads. Justice Minister Peter MacKay appears to believe the ban could go after such publications.  He said, “It affects all forms of advertising, including those online. And anything that enables or furthers what we think is an inherently dangerous practice of prostitution will be subject to prosecution, but the courts will determine what fits that definition,” he told reporters after speaking to the committee July 7th. This has been welcomed by some, including Janine Benedet, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia who supports the bill overall, though she called for some changes. “I didn’t actually expect to see this advertising provision in this bill but I would say it’s actually a really important step, to say that kind of profiteering needs to stop,” she said.

In the 1970s I was a nationally syndicated columnist with the Toronto Sun. I wrote a daily column and a weekly column with both of them on the law. Many of my readers wrote me and one of them asked me if she could advertise her sex services. I told her that she could. Weeks later I saw her advertisement. Believe me—if a priest read it, it would have without a doubt caused him to be sexually aroused.

The bill expands the Criminal Code’s definition of a weapon to including anything “used, designed to be used or intended for use in binding or tying up a person against their will,” a change the head of the Canadian Police Association welcomed. The bill also sets mandatory minimum sentences of at least four years in prison for kidnapping cases that involve exploitation, or any similar case where a person’s movements are limited which are  harsh new penalties. The bill also gives a judge new powers to order a sex ad seized or deleted by amending a clause that previously extended those powers in cases of child pornography or voyeurism.

Would a sex worker be in trouble if her ad said, “Call me and I will tell you how you can have a good time with me.”  Obvious, she is referring to a sex act but the ad doesn’t say that.

The government is doing it now because the court forced their hand – without a new law, Canada would simply not have any laws on the books against prostitution by December, 2017. Some witnesses had called for that, but that’s not what the government is doing. Conservative MP Stella Ambler, who is on the Justice Committee considering the bill, has flatly called the bill an “anti-prostitution law,” and the Justice Minister has said it’s the government’s aim to limit the sex trade as much as possible. The opposition parties have opposed the bill. But both the NDP and Liberals have avoided getting into specifics about how they would have responded to the court’s ruling.

Many sex workers in the United Kingdom are worried that their  government may consider fresh calls to ban sex work advertising online. A core tenet of sex worker activism is “nothing about us without us”, yet many sex workers fear their voices are being sidelined from current debates about the future of their sex industry.

In early July 2017, a debate was held in UK parliament about how best to tackle commercial sexual exploitation. The motion, tabled by the MP Sarah Champion, discussed  the possibility of introducing measures similar to laws introduced in the US in April, known as FOSTA-SESTA. These laws, which have led to the shutting down of a number of prominent sex work websites, have already had devastating consequences for sex workers in the US, with an increase in anecdotal reports of assaults, disappearances and deaths since the law’s introduction. The sex workers were forbidden by law to have a man to protect them.

Understandably, sex workers in the UK are concerned. Yet, so far, their voices have been almost entirely absent and silenced within this issue. The parliamentary debate was based on a May 2018 report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on prostitution, which sidelined evidence given by current sex workers. It recommended measures be taken against websites that sex workers use to advertise and to screen potential clients.

In the debate, a number of MPs propagated damaging rhetoric surrounding sex work. Such myths included the conflation of consensual sex work with sex trafficking, the idea that sex work is inherently exploitative or abusive, and that sex work is less legitimate than other forms of employment.

The debate included multiple, shocking quotations from clients deriding the services provided by sex workers, taken from an escort review service. These are undeniably unpleasant in tone. While the account of one former sex worker, who never worked in the UK, was cited, no testimony from current sex workers was referred to or quoted from throughout the session. How can a debate which prioritizes the words of clients over the words of workers claim to support the rights of those involved in this particular form of labour? It is as absurd as using customer comments to demonstrate what working in retail is like.

Conducting studies in this issue should have much wider implications for sex worker safety. By perpetuating these misconceptions, the stigma against sex workers is reinforced, and they are further silenced. When all sex workers are painted as exploited, abused victims with a false consciousness, their autonomy is disregarded. They are infantilized, delegitimized and disempowered, often by paternalistic politicians who speak over them, rather than with them.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that many sex workers often belong to other marginalized groups. In order to understand sex work, the first source of information should be those who conduct that kind of work. Only then can the nature of the dex industry be truly understood.

Following the debate, a public consultation, currently being carried out by the University of Bristol and commissioned by the government’s Home Office, is looking at the prevalence of prostitution and sex work in England and Wales. The members of the research team are seeking input from: “People currently or formerly involved in prostitution and sex work, academics, NGOs/charities, criminal justice and health practitioners, police and others.” From their findings, recommendations will be made as to how best to proceed with policy with respect to dealing with the sex workers issues.

Human trafficking is clearly a serious issue, and one that needs to be tackled. However, this cannot come at the expense of the safety of those who choose that line of work of their own volition. In the words of one sex worker: “If you want to stop us being objectified and dehumanized, then stop appropriating our struggles for your own political and moral means. There is nothing more dehumanizing that being ignored.”

Sex workers need to be considered as the experts on their own profession, or else their marginalization and exploitation will only be increased. When their incomes and lives are on the line, they cannot be silenced and will not be silenced.

Just months after the US government introduced an outright ban on advertising for sexual services, an unlikely coalition of politicians fronted by the  UK  Labour MP, Sarah Champion held a House of Commons debate calling for similar measures in Britain. Following a report from Champion and her colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group for prostitution, the debate took aim at websites and online adult platforms offering sexual services.

Yet the majority of sex worker experts argue that, as research has demonstrated, banning online sites would drive commercial sex work underground or back onto the streets, increasing the dangers sex workers face and making it harder to detect and prevent crimes against them. More importantly, this is also the view of sex workers themselves as voiced at a spirited demonstration outside parliament during the MP’s Westminster Hall debate.

It happens that the British Society of Criminology Conference was underway in Birmingham just as this debate opened. One session on Rights, Victimization and Sex Work warned that the US legislation (known as FOSTA and SESTA) introduced in March 2018 has already had consequences. There have been reports of assaults on sex workers, and even deaths, and it has affected sex workers’ rights of association. Organizers cancelled the famous three-yearly Desiree Alliance Sex Worker Congress, stating “we cannot put our organization and our attendees at risk”. Sexual health, training and support have been put in jeopardy owing to fears of being criminalized in the new laws.

Regardless of the stock photos of women on street corners, in Britain most commercial sex is advertised and negotiated online. Most advertisements are from adult sex workers working as independent escorts, or from agencies working with a number of women wiling to offer the use of  their bodies to men.

Contrary to Champion’s confident but unsupported assertions, findings from Beyond the Gaze – the largest research project on the online sex industry in the UK – has shown that websites allow sex workers to keep themselves safer. They enable more control over bookings, facilitate online interactions with potential customers, and reveal warning signs of problematic behavior. Sex workers using the internet experience lower levels of serious crimes than others, while arranging commercial sex online leaves a digital footprint which can be used to trace violent or offending clients, or those involved in trafficking and modern slavery offences.

Sex workers share information with each other online to reduce the risks they face from potentially dangerous clients. Operations such as the National Ugly Mugs reporting scheme are supported by adult services websites, and feed information to the police to tackle crimes done by violent men. Only through the visibility of online sex work can exploitation and crimes be easily identified.

One effect of banning sex work advertising and online platforms particularly would be to criminalize people who do sex work for a short time in their lives, for example students or single women. These and others often use the same platforms, not to meet up in person but to sell pictures, videos, or live camera sessions with their clients. Surveys conducted for the UK Office for National Statistics make clear how providers mix and match between in-person and other services. But Champion does not differentiate between these, and for that reason, it skews the debate.

A ban would divert policing resources away from genuine harms such as trafficking, violence and sexual exploitation, to be spent instead on closing down sites used by consenting adults. A blanket ban makes it harder for people to exit sex work, as some women creat websites, assist, or rent space to others in the process of leaving the industry.

Criminalization would increase the stigma around sex work, leading to more sex workers ending up with a criminal record, making it harder for them to get a job outside the industry. It would amplify the hostile environment for migrant and LGBT+ sex workers, when false assumptions are made as to their status. Campaign groups seeking to criminalize sex work frequently regard any non-British sex worker as trafficked, and this deliberate indistinction allows for wildly inflated statistics.

The all-party group’s report appears to follow suit, talking of “potential victims” as being Romanian or other non-UK nationals. It does not clarify what a “potential victim” is, nor how it differs from someone who is not, in fact, a victim, but an uncoerced woman who happens to be a foreigner.

Some years ago the former MP for Rotherham, Denis McShane, used such statistics to argue for the de-facto criminalization of sex work before being called to account by sex workers on national television. Proceeding under the same hysterical reaction, two nationwide police operations, Pentameter I and II, raided over 500 premises and found fewer than 0.01% and 0.021% of sex workers they encountered had been trafficked. McShane’s time might have been better spent fighting for the protection of girls in care homes, and against the grooming gangs in his constituency – Champion, having replaced him as MP for Rotherham, should take note.

The issue of criminal gangs, of coercion, trafficking and organized prostitution is something that must be tackled. But further criminalization will not help solve the greater problems.

Champion’s move is supported in some quarters, including by the hardline Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, and this will not necessarily come as a surprise to those aware of the provocative attitudes of the all-party parliamentary group on prostitution. Under strong influence from religious members such as MPs Gavin Shuker and Fiona Bruce, their report is completely at odds with the previous coalition government’s policies, under which a Home Office review concluded priorities should be the safety of sex workers, support for migrant sex workers, and an investigative focus on grooming underage women into being prostitutes.

Instead, politicians should call for a compulsory rollout of the  Merseyside Model to all police forces, a multi-agency approach to support sex workers and combat crimes against them and the community. They might look to other cross-party work, such as that convened by Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell MP in a report published with the English Collective of Prostitutes. Or to the Liberal Democrats’ policy, developed with evidence from experts and sex workers, which calls for decriminalization of consensual sex work as a harm reduction measure, refocusing police activity on fighting coercion, defined broadly as fear, force, or fraud, and to support those seeking to exit this profession.

A rational approach to harm reduction for sex workers is commended by health professionals, such as in an expert view published in the British Medical Journal. There is no appetite for dangerous laws that misdirect scarce resources toward the wrong targets. Academics have always offered their expertise and research to politicians to help build policies on evidence, not dogma; it is time they got the message.

Prostitution was here at the beginning of the time when men and women  first walked on two feet and it will be here until the end of the world. The Puritans will continue to denounce it but their denouncements will be ignored the most part,

 However, the laws should concentrate of punishing pimps who use under-aged girls as their source of income and traffickers who bring young women into our country as would-be prostitutes. The punishments should be harsh. 

In my paper, I suggested that brothels (like the one in Nevada) should be placed in an industrial area of the city where the prostitutes are licenced, checked for their health and run by women only. So far, my suggestion has fallen on deaf ears.

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