Conference: the city should regulate sex work

HRM should prepare for the fall out from an Ontario court case, say advocates.

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It’s not a scene you see everyday: A former sex worker is sitting at a table, sharing her experiences of violence in the sex trade with a law enforcement officer and a nun over coffee and cake. Free and uninhibited discussion flows back and forth, as all parties try to think of ways to reduce the risks associated with the sex trade.

Mount Saint Vincent University and Stepping Stone co-hosted “Green Light, Red Light: Regulating Sex Work in Halifax,” bringing diverse community members together last Friday for a conference and roundtable discussion about how to regulate sex work in Halifax.

“I never thought five years ago, when I started at Stepping Stone, that we would be sitting in the room with all these players,” remarked Rene Ross, the executive director of the non-profit organization that advocates for the health and safety of those in the sex trade. “We’ve come so far.”

The Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled in September that the laws surrounding sex work were unconstitutional, forcing sex workers to choose between their liberty and their right to security. The Federal government plans to appeal this decision June 13, arguing that the law has no obligation to protect those working in the underground industry. If the appeal fails, the regulation of sex work could fall into the hands of the municipalities.

Lawyer Alan Young, who represents Terri Bedford (the dominatrix who first challenged the legislation surrounding sex work in Ontario), spoke to a packed conference room in Halifax Friday:

“What we have right now doesn’t work,” said Young bluntly. “The law does way more harm than good.” While selling sex is not illegal in itself, the Canadian Criminal Code prohibits the activities surrounding sex work. This includes communicating for the purposes of sex work, living off the avails of sex work and operating a bawdy house.

Deborah, a woman who has worked for decades in the sex industry, told conference goers that navigating Canada’s sex trade laws has often endangered her on the job. The law forbids sex workers to discuss the transaction of sex for money with clients: “If I were out working and I had a potential client, I would have to jump into that vehicle very quickly,” said Deborah (who requested media not use her last name). She wondered whether or not some murdered sex workers might still be alive today “if they were able to take that couple of seconds to make sure that there wasn’t another person in the back and to make sure that that guy wasn’t sitting on a knife that he could hold to your throat.”

Conference goers discussed the ways in which sex work could be regulated differently, studying models from countries such as New Zealand, where voluntary sex work is decriminalized. Were the Federal government’s June appeal to fail, the people who ought to help draft new regulations are “the sex workers themselves,” stressed Young “and the communities that have to deal with the trade.”

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