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Steve Weatherbe

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Canada’s new prostitution law takes effect amidst backlash from media, Ontario’s premier

Steve Weatherbe

Canada’s new prostitution law, based on the Nordic law that criminalizes the customer and decriminalizes the sex worker, came into effect this week.

The country’s news media heralded the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act by finding several detractors, including the premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, while virtually ignoring available supporters from the long list of witnesses who testified before Parliament when the law was up for debate earlier this year.

One of those uncalled by the news media was Megan Robinson-Walker, executive director of the London Abused Women's Centre. “We fully support the law,” she told LifeSiteNews. “And so do a majority of organizations like ours that help the victims of prostitution and other forms of male violence. But the media seem to be quoting only one side of this issue lately: about 60 organizations that oppose the law.” She said her organization had helped gather the names of about 800 groups like hers for an open letter to the prime minister supporting the new law.

Robinson-Walker says these groups approve of the new law not only because it correctly treats prostitution as a violent crime against women and focuses punishment on the perpetrators, it also provides $20 million over five years on education, rehabilitation, and trauma-based counseling programs to get women involved in prostitution into other occupations.

“But even more than that it addresses the problem at the root, changing the culture so that boys and girls will no longer grow up believing women are sex-objects,” Robinson-Walker says.

The new law creates several new crimes: first, paying for sex will bring a $500-fine on first offence and $1,000 on second, but can go as high as five years imprisonment. Fines would double if the early offences occurred near playgrounds, schools, or daycares. Prostitutes themselves would draw fines or jail terms only for doing their business in these locations.

Pimps, including the operators of online escort agencies, could draw prison terms up to 10 years, and advertisers of the sexual services of others would be punishable by up to five years.

The new law also increases the minimum and maximum penalties for the existing crimes of paying for the sexual services of children, and for trafficking in children.

Yet media attention focused not on prostitution but on critics of the law: on NOW, for example, a Toronto-based counter-culture web magazine, which has decided to keep its sex advertisements on its Internet site; on Premier Wynne’s call for her attorney general to review the new law, which she worries might not protect sex workers; a photogenic criminologist named Michael Kempa, who warned that Ontario might just choose not to enforce the law at all if the review proved negative.

Other provincial governments might follow, since law enforcement is a provincial responsibility, Alan Young, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, pointed out in the National Post: “The provinces can decide to nullify a new enactment simply by refusing to prosecute cases brought under this law.”

Young, of course, is no ordinary professor. He was the lawyer who represented prostitute Terri-Jean Bedford in the case that saw the Supreme Court of Canada throw out Canada’s old prostitution law.

Young’s argument, which the Supreme Court justices accepted, was that the old law endangered sex workers. And so would the new one, argue a few organizations across Canada devoted exclusively to maintaining sex workers on the job. They warn that criminalizing customers will drive the trade further out of sight and underground, making it more dangerous.

Thus the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform wants the sex trade not only decriminalized but supported with worker’s compensation, occupational health, safety standards and all the other components of the conventional workplace.

“That is a kind of harm-reduction model,” Robinson-Walker told LifeSiteNews. “It doesn’t get at the root cause, which is male violence. It is trying to reduce the danger in something that is inherently dangerous.”

Julia Beazley of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada agrees. “We reject the idea that the laws cause the harm done to women.” Prostitution fosters an attitude in the males who buy sex that they can do anything to these women which provides pleasure, including violence.

Beazley noted that some prostitutes have made highly publicized defences of sex work (notably Terri-Jean Bedford, the dominatrix whose court challenge resulted in the previous prostitution law’s being ruled unconstitutional). “They are at the apex of the sex work pyramid. But most workers are at the base. They are in the business only out of economic necessity, drug addiction or mental illness. They really have no choice and until their basic problems are addressed they cannot have any choice.”

Beazley said that the human sex drive or even the male sex drive did not translate into “a need to buy sex.”  The new law is aimed at making the buying of sex socially unacceptable in the same way that smoking in public has become unacceptable through a combination of laws and education.

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