TORONTO (National Post) – A trio of Toronto prostitutes yesterday launched a constitutional challenge to overturn criminal laws governing their profession, arguing existing restrictions put their lives at risk.

Though prostitution is not explicitly illegal in Canada, soliciting, operating a bawdy house and living off the avails of the sex trade are crimes punishable by up to five years in prison.

Alan Young, a lawyer and professor at Osgoode Hall law school, said these laws prevent prostitutes from screening and negotiating with potential clients, working in safe environments or obtaining support services from bodyguards or drivers.

While intended to stamp out prostitution, Mr. Young said the laws only have the effect of driving the sex trade onto the streets and into back alleys where women are vulnerable to violence.

“How do you tell whether you’re being picked up by the Green River Killer or someone who’s going to show you respect?” said Mr. Young, who is leading the drive to strike down these provisions of the criminal code.

One need look no further than the ongoing Robert Pickton case in B.C. for proof of the dangers faced by prostitutes who are forced by the law to work the streets, he said.

The Port Coquitlam pig farmer is on trial for the slayings of six sex trade workers who went missing from the Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and faces another 20 murder charges.

More than 80 women who worked Edmonton’s streets have also gone missing or turned up dead in recent years, said Valerie Scott, a long-time sex worker who has lent her name to the court challenge.

“So what if these are drugged out street girls? They are human beings and they are Canadians and they have families who care,” said Ms. Scott, who is executive director of the group Sex Professionals of Canada. “We are humans and we are part of the community. We don’t come in on a shuttle from Mars every night and leave before sunrise.”

But not all organizations who work with sex trade workers support decriminalizing prostitution.

Daisy Kler, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, said it would lead to further victimization of people who are deeply vulnerable and only benefit those who profit from their exploitation.

“[If the laws were struck down,] we would have a heyday for pimps, human traffickers and johns to do what they want … and women would have no protection under the state or under law,” she said. “The idea that the woman on the Downtown Eastside who is addicted and impoverished is going to run her own brothel and hire a bodyguard– this is fantasy.”

Ms. Kler deplores the use of the Pickton trial to make the case for legalizing prostitution.

She also cautioned against buying what she said was the myth that there is a distinction to be made between people who choose sex work and those forced into it by circumstance or coercion.

“It’s hard to see it as a choice when the average age of women entering prostitution is 14.

People say ‘Oh, we’re against child prostitution, we absolutely think that’s wrong. But consenting women, we have no problem with that.'” she said. “Usually the majority of the women enter as children. So the idea of consent is ridiculous.”

Mr. Young, who fought Canada’s prohibition on marijuana possession, said he hopes the challenge will be heard within 12 to 18 months.

If he is successful in decriminalizing prostitution, Mr. Young said it will be up to lawmakers in cities and provinces to determine how they want to regulate the trade, whether by issuing permits or setting up red light districts.

For now his focus is to show the current laws hurt people more than they help them.

“If the harm created by the law grossly outweighs the benefit of the law then it’s unconstitutional,” Mr. Young said.

By Allison Hanes, March 22, 2007

© National Post 2007