Merry Christmas, sex workers!
The nine elves on the Supreme Court delivered an early gift from the fatman last week, when they overturned all of Canada’s laws that indirectly criminalize the exchange of money and sex.
That, in and of itself, isn’t terribly surprising.
When I spoke with Alan Young in August, for a feature on sex work in Halifax’s The Coast, there was a pretty obvious optimism behind his put-on tempered expectations. Young was the chief counsel for the three sex workers who brought down the regulatory regime.
What would come after the ruling, however it goes, he told me — and the ruling went exactly as they hoped — is that Stephen Harper will be paralyzed by fear.
He may have been wrong on that count.
When Shelly Glover, ex-cop and heritage minister, took to a press conference in Winnipeg after the ruling, she vowed that the government would act swiftly to replace the laws.
That’s giving credence to a fear in the community that supports sex work liberalization. That fear is that the Conservative Government will move to use the backdoor to avoid the harsh constitutionalize gaze of the Supreme Court.
If they won’t let us criminalize the workers, says this hypothetical Prime Minister. We’ll criminalize the perverts who hire them.
It’s called the Nordic Model — slap laws on the johns, not the women and men who are just trying to get by.
It sounds nice enough, and the idea gets credence from a large chunk of the feminist community. Nevermind that it’s been tried throughout Scandinavia, and the verdict is generally that it’s not a complete failure — though that it may be of only marginal benefit to the sex workers themselves.
The problem with the plan, according to its detractors, is that it forces johns to work in the shadows. That means they’re more likely to take their dirty business away from prying eyes. Therein lies the problem: whenever a sex worker gets whisked away to somewhere more private, their safety is never guaranteed.
Which was the premise of Friday’s ruling — laws cannot infringe on a sex worker’s right to protect themselves. Operating in their own home, screening their clients on the street, hiring security — compromising those activities cannot be allowed to stand, under the Charter.
It’s not too far a stretch to suggest that, by criminalizing the buyer, the seller will be put in danger.
But, just the same, it looks like Harper will advance the idea.
And if he doesn’t, Justin Trudeau just might.
I asked Trudeau his thoughts on sex work legalization in April. He eschewed the virtues of the Nordic Model, but told me that he hasn’t made up his mind.
“On the issue of prostitution, I’m not entirely there yet in terms of legalization. Obviously it’s something that we need more broadly understood science on. I want to hear from more people on it,” he told me in the final weeks before his election as leader.
In speaking with Carolyn Bennett on Friday, who was covering the issue for her party, she indicated that the Nordic Model was something that they’re looking at.
There is, therefore, a large swath of territory wherein the New Democrats can plant their flag, so to speak.
They could advocate, like they do for our lack of abortion laws, that we merely leave the statutory vacuum stay in place and hope things sort themselves out. Or, perhaps, they could suggest that the municipalities regulate the affair themselves, as they do with strip clubs.
But trumpeting the cause of anarchy does not a good federal rhetorical strategy make.
They could, instead, look to New Zealand.
The tiny island nation has one of the most-lauded prostitution regimes in the world, if you support that kind of thing.
The head of the country’s biggest sex work support organization told me once that no political party was advocating the repealing of those laws. And aside from a few grumbly homeowners who live nearby a red-light district, there is a relative public consensus on the matter.
“You wouldn’t have a sense of the sex industry if you drove through New Zealand, aside from a few neon lights,” she told me.
Sounds nice, dunnit?
Well don’t hold your breath.
When Status of Women critic Niki Ashton proposed to the NDP’s policy convention earlier this year that the party codify their long-held belief that sex work be decriminalized, there was good support on the floor for it. Yet, mysteriously, Libby Davies, Health critic and representative of the country’s busiest sex work district — and noted ideological sympathizer with lefty Ashton — went to the mic to have the motion moved behind closed doors.
That motion has since, seemingly, been killed. It was to come before the party’s secretive federal council some months ago, and has never been heard from again.
In chatting with the party’s Justice critic, Françoise Boivin, there was no clear indicator of where the party, long champion of a liberalized harm reduction strategy, would land.
So Young may have been right to say that politicians would be paralyzed by the abruptness of the Supreme Court, but it doesn’t seem like it will be Stephen Harper who will be consumed with fear.
As the NDP tries to fit itself into some sort of centrist, pearl-clutching not-in-my-backyard attitude that is designed to court suburban voters who are worried about that hooker at the end of the block, this debate may not receive the consideration it requires.
The only hope that both sides might get ample boosting is the one champion for a policy that attempts to mitigate harm born on sex workers, to hell with the consequence. That’s Elizabeth May. She sent out a release following the decision advocating for full federal legalization and regulation of the sex trade.
However this shakes down, Ottawa only has a year to craft new laws, lest Canada become an arctic whorehouse, stricken with absolute moral depravity and chaos..
The clock is ticking.
Other articles by Justin Ling
Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling