Debating the merits of decriminalization
Panel discusses the effects that decriminalization of prostitution in Ontario could have on its stakeholders and society
Since the Ontario Superior Court of Justice decided to decriminalize prostitution on Sept. 28, the province has been debating the pros and cons.
On Monday night almost 200 people came to a panel discussion in Ellis Hall organized by Queen’s Law and Public Policy Club to hear a few arguments on both sides of the debate. The panel featured five speakers from all across the province. While they all agreed that prostitution should be decriminalized, they disagreed as to whether that should include pimps, johns, buyers and other stakeholders or only the prostitutes.
Natasha Falle, executive director of the educational organization, Sex Trade 101, an organization that aims to increase public education and awareness about the sex trade, was a panelist at the debate.
As a self-identified former prostitute, Falle said at the panel that she worries about what the new law will do for child exploitation in the sex industry.
Falle said that she began work as a prostitute when she was 14, and that the average age that people enter the industry is 13.
“[When I entered] we called it working in the game … It’s never a choice for a child … Now we are removing the provision that says [prostitution’s] not okay,” Falle said. “I refuse to legitimize this as something that’s healthy.” She said her own brushes with danger prompted her to carry a knife when she would meet clients.
With an estimated 200 prostitutes in Kingston, Falle said she stands behind the decision to decriminalize prostitution.
Nonetheless, she said she wants the stakeholders in the industry to remain criminalized by the law.
“These women are there because they’re victims of the industry. Prostitution is a business exchange based on lies and threats of violence,” Falle said.
After the ruling was made in September, the case moved on to the Court of Appeal.
Regardless of the outcome, Falle said the court case has helped remove the taboos associated with talking about the sex industry.
“Ten years ago, nobody was talking about this. We were all whores and sexual deviants. [The court decision] has given a lot of people in the business a voice, whether they are for or against the ruling,” Falle said. Livia Jozsa, JD ’12, was the principle organizer of the panel, entitled ‘Should Prostitution be legalized.’ She said prostitution was illegal before the Sept. 28 ruling due to three provisions.
“The Bedford v. Canada case was an attempt to strike down three laws that made prostitution illegal,” Jozsa said.
The laws included owning a bawdy house, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating for the purposes for the prostitution, she said.
Jozsa said that after hearing both sides of the argument at the panel, she feels partial decriminalization would be the best route for Canada. “I agree with the Swedish model which is basically to charge the buyers, the pimps and the johns, but not the women … I think we should still charge the men … we don’t want to have laws that support the normalization of prostitution,” Jozsa said.
Panelist Alan Young represented the three women who brought the Bedford v. Canada case before the Supreme Court.
“I’m not a big fan of [this] law,” he said. “I’ve never really felt that the government should use criminal law to control a person’s sexuality.” He said, at the panel, that society typically depicts prostitutes in a very stereotypical way, such as the Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman) or crack-addict, and he wanted to challenge these stereotypes.
“You’re not going to change people’s moral views on prostitution and abortion,” Young said. “[But] people are talking about this again, and I don’t know where it’s going to lead to, but people are talking about. It’s about time.”
Ottawa Law School’s Shelia McIntyre said everyone who’s involved in the financial transaction side of prostitution (everyone but the prostitutes themselves) should still be criminalized by Ontario law.
“Social and economic inequality are the engines that [cause] the sex trade. The legalization of prostitution will lead to its expansion,” McIntyre said, adding that current law perceives prostitution as inevitable, and that this shouldn’t be an assumption.
“Legitimizing the prostitution industry from an equality perspective amounts to legitimizing the inequalities that cause it,” she said.
The final two panelists, Margaret Little, a Queen’s professor and anti-poverty activist; and Christina Marciano, MA ’10, agreed with McIntyre’s inequality argument, but Marciano said they remained in favour of full decriminalization under the Sept. 28 ruling.
“We are coming from the perspective of workers and workers rights,” she said. “Decriminalization would improve the livelihoods of sex workers for health and safety, economic well-being and labour rights.”
Margaret Little said that poverty and low welfare rates play a huge role in sex work.
“In many ways sex work makes a lot more sense than other jobs; you can do it for a few hours in the evening, and it’s usually better money than minimum wage,” Little said. “It’s a profession, and Canada’s system requires a system that recognizes this.”
— With files from Clare Clancy