Prostitutes suffer with ‘sinister’ law On Wed Oct 07 2009

http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/crime/article/706582–prostitutes-suffer-with-sinister-law By Rosie DiManno Columnist Published

 When the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, was sentenced for murdering 48 women, his written confession was read aloud in court: “I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex. I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. … I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” Marcello Palma shot three Toronto sex trade workers during a manic, two-hour killing spree in 1996. Married, with a young child, Palma later claimed he was “getting rid of street scum.” Pig farmer Robert Pickton, charged with murdering 26 prostitutes – and convicted on six counts at his first trial in 2007 – preyed on the most vulnerable of drug-addled and transient hookers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, though years had passed before police aggressively tackled the phenomenon of so many women disappearing off the face of the Earth. The streets are not safe for prostitutes. Yet the streets are where Canada’s laws force them to work. While prostitution is legal in this country, nearly everything surrounding the activity is criminalized, particularly where the service can be provided: Not indoors, not in one’s home, and not under a roof shared with a spouse, partner or bodyguard, any of whom can be charged with living off the avails. That Catch-22 is at the heart of a constitutional challenge which finally opened Tuesday before Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel, and largely on the efforts of students from York University and Osgoode Hall Law School. Few others, it would appear, care much about the lives – too often, deaths – of sex trade workers. As rewritten in the mid-’80s, Canada’s legislation is far more preoccupied with marginalizing prostitution, keeping the nuisance of solicitation off the streets, yet simultaneously denying its practitioners a secure environment that would discourage both predatory assaults and the visible street presence that many citizens find objectionable. “The law is contributing to lack of safety and the harm women face,” said Alan Young. “The laws today operate as a sinister contradiction.” An Osgoode law professor, Young is arguing the motion on behalf of his client, notorious – and endlessly waggish – Toronto dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford. As befits an S&M specialist, Bedford showed up for court Tuesday in full-leather (but stylish) ensemble, riding crop tucked inside her coat. “It’s to keep reporters in line and whip some shape into the law,” the 49-year-old grandmother teased. More seriously: “Just because I have a crop doesn’t mean I don’t mean business. This is my business.” Bedford’s “Bondage Bungalow” in Thornhill was raided by cops in 1994 and she was convicted of keeping a common bawdy house four years later. Police, she reminds, still have her professional toys. “They never even returned my panties.” She and two other prostitutes, including long-time activist Valerie Scott – whose Bad Date register provides crucial information on clients to avoid – are the catalysts for the landmark legal challenge as a violation of their rights to security and freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights. Aligned against the challengers are lawyers for the attorneys general of Ontario and Canada, with intervention status granted to religious and conservative groups, a misguided privilege in itself. At issue are sections dealing with keeping a bawdy house, living off the avails and communicating for the purpose of prostitution, all of which is forbidden. “Is it a vice? Is it a virtue?” Young mused, as he launched into oratory that, in this venue, often sounds like a filibuster. “The applicants don’t even call into question Parliament’s right to criminalize prostitution. We’re questioning how they’ve done it. “This is not a challenge about morality. That’s not relevant for the purposes of this hearing. Our challenge relates to the means chosen to achieve an objective.” Prostitution legislation is intended to curb public nuisance while protecting against exploitation – the latter an issue that will be heavily emphasized by the respondents later this week, the spectre of women forced on their backs by pimps and human traffickers a predictable, if limited in reality, counter-argument. Nobody among the plaintiffs is denying that “survival-sex” exists or is promoting a prostitution free-for-all. “I’m here representing the intelligent, independent and well-informed sex worker,” said Young. There are some. There are plenty. It’s a legitimate profession and it’s not going away, even in countries such as Sweden that have recently passed dogmatic and draconian legislation that pre-emptively assumes coercion, with sex-as-commerce an inherent violation of human rights. Such legislation is staggeringly patronizing. As the legislation stands, prostitutes must choose between compliance and safety, Young argued. “The law should never put anyone on the horns of that dilemma.” This is no minor consideration. Soliciting in public is a summary offence that carries a monetary fine. Keeping a bawdy house – arcane language for working out of one’s home – is an indictable offence that triggers forfeiture of assets and allows police to obtain wiretaps. Conviction on living off the avails – be that a driver, spouse, security employee or receptionist – means landing on the sex offenders’ register. “You will get the mark of Cain for life for assisting a sex worker and protecting them.” The law is self-defeating, Young continued, because, in application, it runs counter to intent, while tacitly promoting the stereotypical and ideological arguments it doesn’t have the guts to make overtly. There’s no practical option offered for women (or men) who choose to be prostitutes. “It’s all bad, period. The Constitution tells you there is only one safe option – exit the sex trade.”

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