Ontario Legalizes Brothels, Bodyguards to Protect Sex Workers

According to a ruling by Ontario's highest court Monday, prostitutes may set up brothels and hire bodyguards, but solicitation on the street is still forbidden.

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Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Canadian Press / AP

Terri-Jean Bedford, center, with Nikki Thomas, left, and Valerie Scott, right, after the Ontario's Court of Appeal eliminated a ban on brothels March 26, 2012. Bedford, a dominatrix, has argued that Canada's sex trade laws force workers from the safety of their homes to face violence on the streets.

Ontario’s Court of Appeal, Ontario’s highest court, struck down three prostitution laws Monday in an effort to protect the safety of sex workers and minimize the dangers of such a risky occupation. “The world in which street prostitutes actually operate is a world of dark streets and barren, isolated, silent places,” said the five-judge panel in its decision. “It is a dangerous world, with always the risk of violence and even death.”

According to the Associated Press, the panel unanimously decided prostitutes may set up brothels and starting April 25, will also be able to hire bodyguards to protect them. Solicitation on the street, or the “communication provision,” however, remains illegal. Upholding this provision is one of the more contentious issues surrounding Monday’s decision.

(MORE: Legal Sex Work in Canada Just Became Easier, But Will It Be Safer?)

“The violence faced by street prostitutes across Canada is, in a word, overwhelming,” said Mr. Justice James MacPherson and Madame Justine Eleanore Cronk, who say they think the provision exacerbates an already difficult situation. “One does not need to conjure up the face of Robert Pickton to know that this is true.” Pickton is an infamous serial killer in Canada, a former pig farmer who preyed on drug-addicted prostitutes. He was charged with killing dozens of women and convicted of six second-degree murders in the early 2000s.

While some argue the communication provision prolongs dangerous conditions for sex workers, proponents say neighborhoods must be kept free of organized crime and unwanted solicitations. “Our main concern is that people feel safe in their communities, feel safe in their homes, and this kind of issue may very well need legislative action,” Ontario Attorney-General John Gerretsen, who is considering appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada, told the Globe and Mail.

There is no consensus among G8 countries when it comes to prostitution, but University of Toronto law professor Brenda Cossman told the National Post that Ontario’s recent ruling positions the country in “about the middle” of industrialized nations. For Germany’s estimated 400,000 prostitutes, the profession is legal and regulated. Likewise in Greece, sex working is legal but prostitutes must register with the government and have biweekly health checkups. In Sweden, Norway and Iceland, you can sell sex on the street but not buy it, making the customer the criminal. And in the U.S., prostitution is prohibited everywhere but Nevada.

Overall, prostitution activists activists praised Monday’s ruling as a turning point, but the decision is expect to be appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and reviewed in the next year.

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