Newsflash: Canadian Court Strikes Down Anti-Sex-Work Laws

The provincial court of Ontario, Canada, struck down several key provisions that limit sex workers’ ability to work safely, a victory being hailed by sex workers’ rights activists. On September 28, three anti-sex-work laws were deemed “unconstitutional” and a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Justice Susan Himel, a high-level Ontario court justice (similar to a State Supreme Court Justice in the U.S.), said, “I find that the danger faced by prostitutes greatly outweighs any harm which may be faced by the public.”

The laws struck down in this landmark ruling are: Keeping a “common bawdy house”; communicating for the purpose of prostitution (including stopping cars or pedestrians, speaking to hotel or bar patrons or communicating with a client on a cell phone); and “living on the avails of prostitution” (this affects sex workers themselves, as well as live-in partners and family members who are supported by sex workers).

Prostitution itself is not illegal in Canada, but there are a number of federal provisions that criminalize aspects of the trade, making it extremely difficult–if not impossible–to engage in street-level sex work safely or legally.

The constitutional challenge was brought by three sex workers who argued that anti-prostitution provisions violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees life, liberty and security of the person to all Canadians.

The anti-prostitution laws put sex workers in unsafe situations by preventing them from working indoors–which allows for security, screening and safety in numbers–through the “bawdy house” provision, and criminalizing communication with potential clients, making it extremely difficult to determine whether or not a “john” may turn violent.

Anti-sex work laws are prescribed by the federal government, thus a provincial court cannot make substantive changes to those laws. However, a province can determine how anti-prostitution laws are enforced in their region. Until this ruling, provinces have only used this power to restrict prostitution by making certain neighborhoods “no-go zones” for sex workers, or to justify heavier policing of sex workers and johns, especially for the purpose of protecting child prostitutes. Yesterday’s Ontario court ruling is the first time the provincial loophole has been used to effectively decriminalize sex work.

Effects of the decision will not be felt for for at least 30 days, and the federal government can seek an extension of that period. Both the provincial government of Ontario and the federal government are expected to appeal the decision. Justice Himel said the Canadian Parliament should “fashion corrective action” as soon possible. We’ll be waiting for definitive results next month.

Photo from Flickr user marc falardeau under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Let me be the first to congratulate Jude Susan Himel on a wonderful, potentially historic decision advancing the rights of sex workers!

    Canada's restrictions have hampered sex workers in a similar way as Sweden's has. Hopefully, a Swedish judge will at least read her decision.

  2. Read this-
    and you will be horrified that Canada receives the lowest mark out of the countries that took part in the study- an F in regards to sex trafficking, while the States receives the highest mark of a B+

  3. The downside to decriminalizing prostitution is that human trafficking (aka slavery) increases. Only way found to keep human trafficking down (so far) is to criminalize buying sex at the same time that prostitution is decriminalized. Maybe some province’s increased policing to protect young sex workers will help. I guess we’ll see.

  4. making it extremely difficult to determine whether or not a “john” may turn violent.

    Can any woman really figure out if a man will turn rapist or murderer, even after months or years of knowing him intimately?

    The new ruling seems to suggest turning ten tricks a night in cars is more harmful to women than turning ten tricks a night in hotels. We are led to believe it's not the brutal, dangerous kinds of sex acts or high volume of johns that harms prostitutes, but the ambiance of the location.

    I do not believe for one minute it is locales and not johns who are the actual perpetrators of often deadly harm done to prostitutes.

    If prostitutes really had the finely honed rapist detection skills assumed above then prostitutes would not be the most raped women in the world, they would instead be the least raped women in the world. I call major logic fail.

    • "I call major logic fail."

      Me too.

      Again, another article erasing the agency of the johns and pimps involved who chose their choice to buy and sell womyn.

  5. Dominique Millette says:

    Aside from the safety aspect, this is part of what I wrote about the subject on my blog:

    I wonder about the possibility of what I would call “creeping prostitution”, where already-sexualized jobs for women, such as stripping and even hostess positions, start including actual sex acts for customers as a condition of employment. This would constrain the choices of women who don’t want to engage in prostitution by narrowing the jobs available to them. To my knowledge, there have been no studies on this whatsoever.

    The reason I wonder about its probability is because of what happened with lap dancing in the 1990s in Canada. In 1993, a Supreme Court decision declared a mutual masturbation session between a nude customer and performer in a Quebec strip club did not violate community standards. A year later, the “no-touch” rule was repealed for Ontario strippers. This effectively allowed a form of prostitution in strip clubs, since the strippers were expected to grind into the customers and allow the latter to fondle and kiss their breasts. As a result, any stripper who didn’t want to touch customers was fired by strip clubs or essentially forced to quit. This led to an anti-lap-dancing crusade by stripper Katharine Goldberg, and eventually to the reinstatement of the ban on lap dancing in 1997. However, in December 1999, the Supreme Court ruled in R v. Pelletier that contact in strip clubs is permissible so long as it takes place in private areas and stops short of explicit sexual activity. This would mean no oral sex or intercourse, or manual handling of genital areas, but that private booths and lap dancing are legal.

    South of the border, an anonymous stripper sent a letter to the Seattlest website in 2006, opposing its endorsement of lap dancing by saying “why can’t you just be happy looking at us beautiful ladies without making us have to touch your old, skanky, often-smelly manselves to pay our rent? Strippers really hate the rise in lapdances and private room experiences that johns like you are increasingly demanding from us to have your ‘fun’.” I will leave it to you to imagine the male reader’s comments, or click on the site if you dare. (Hint: it’s along the lines of wow, with a bad attitude like yours, who would want to pay you anything and you must be ugly).

    Given these developments, I wonder to what point other professions aside from stripping, such as being a waitress at Hooters’ or a hostess somewhere else, might lead to demands on the part of venue owners for women workers to provide prostitution services, or get fired. As long as prostitution is decriminalized, this would not automatically be seen as constituting sexual harassment and, therefore, a measure of protection could be taken away from women workers at all levels of the economy. Will women end up not being able to work anywhere except in places where they must be sexually available? Already, as profiled at Tiger Beatdown, a human rights complaint now pending in B.C., pitting a bartender against a place called the Shark Club which required her to dress provocatively and tolerate harassment from customers, has elicited the usual “she-was-asking-for-it-by-working-there” defense from various commentators. This does not bode well for the rest of us.

    I don’t know what the ideal solution is. However, from everything I’ve heard and read, it seems calling prostitution a choice is euphemistic at best. Most prostitutes don’t appear to have too many other alternatives, even if a few may feel perfectly at ease with their career choice. One thing I’m sure of is that if women as a whole could accumulate substantial benefits from other means more often than by being sexually attractive and/or available, we wouldn’t have this Hobson’s choice in front of us.


  6. “The anti-prostitution laws put sex workers in unsafe situations by preventing them from working indoors–which allows for security, screening and safety in numbers”

    The women I know who’ve worked indoors have faced the absolute worst abuse.

    In legal settings, there may be four “safety” buttons for a woman to press in case she needs help. What other job do you go to with the possibility of being smothered to death by pillows (these have to be removed from legal brothels for that reason)? Being abused is not a job.

    Furthermore, just because some women state they enjoy this does not make it reason to continue. Women also “enjoy” cutting their wrists and binging and purging as ways to cope under male supremacy. We just don’t make money for those.

    • I agree with what you said. I am sorry that Canada is getting a bad name and a reputation as being on the verge of legalizing prosititution. This is not true – we are not about to legalize prostitution and have adopted many of the American programs to help women out of it (especially New York and New Jersey programs). But Canada is a large contributor of strip clubs, pornography, drugs (which contribute to prostitution) and organized crime. I am proud to be a Canadian but no country is perfect. Canada needs to work on helping women out of the sex trade (prostitution/porn/strip clubs) instead of worrying about appearing “liberal” to other countries.

  7. I live very close to this white upper-middle class suburb where the by-laws are being discussed. It’s just the attitude that white middle-class women aren’t oppressed, so it’s supposedly okay in this white middle class neighborhood. (Of course, North Americans oppose sex work in the so-called third world and for immigrant, poor women, this is different, but white middle-class women are somehow different.) Well, I am glad to say that since this ruling, there are no plans to legalize prostitution. In fact, Canada has adopted many of the New York State and New Jersey State programs to help women out of prostitution, and this includes the Schools for Johns. They educate men about why prostitution harms women; they help women OUT of prostitution and they also provide jobs for social workers and such. To me, there is no difference between “upper class” prostitution and street prostitution or prostitution in the so-called third world – it’s just class differences. It’s important to remember that prostitution existed in the Communist countries, just proof that this problem is not totally economic. Yes, I do think that controlling drugs and organized crime would help to minimize prostitution as would building a more socialist economy, but I do not consider prostitution to be totally economic. Canada is not about to legalize prostitution, but it’s time we did something about all these so-called wonderful strip clubs and everything else that harms women.

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