A large crowd gathered in Ellis Hall on November 15, 2010, to watch and participate in a panel discussing the merits of legalizing prostitution in light of the Bedford v. Canada case. Titled “Should Prostitution Be Legalized?” and moderated by Professor Chris Essert, the issue was discussed by Professor Alan Young (Osgoode), Sheila McIntyre (Ottawa), Law ‘84, Queen’s Political Science Professor Margaret Little and her graduate student, Christina Marciano, and Executive Director of Sex Trade 101 and former prostitute Natasha Falle. The event was organized by the Queen’s Law and Public Policy Club, and sponsored by Queen’s Law, the Queen's School of Policy Studies, the Law Students' Society, the Society of Graduate & Professional Students, and Feminist Legal Studies Queen’s.
This issue remains a contentious one. The three Criminal Code provisions relating to soliciting for the purposes of prostitution and owning and operating a bawdy house were struck down as they were found to violate a woman’s security of the person and liberty interests. Justice Mark Rosenberg of the Ontario Court of Appeal granted the government a temporary stay on December 2, 2010, on the grounds that there was a legislative vacuum that might have unforeseen complications. Young and his client, Terri-Jean Bedford, are expected to take the case to the Supreme Court.
The panel began with each participant having around twenty minutes to speak on their point of view. Young discussed the merits of the case, commenting on the harm the current law causes -- mentioning serial killers such as Robert Pickton, who used prostitutes as his victims because he assumed they were least valued in society and could be discarded.
“It really doesn’t matter to me whether you think sex work is a moral abomination,” Young said. “I look at the role of the law, and the role of the law is such that you can’t say something complies with the legality of the rule of law when it creates unsafe working conditions -- it defeats the whole social contract if the law is contributing to the very harm it is supposed to protect from.”
McIntyre followed, taking both Young and the Crown to task for the way they conducted the case, and likening it to a rape trial. She took a sociological approach, bringing in issues of male violence and inequality, and framing her inequity argument with reference to s.15 of the Charter.
Marciano and Little then presented jointly, drawing on their research to cover the poverty angle, and the dangers involved when women are forced into prostitution due to economic circumstances.
“The question of the appropriate legal approach to sex work is a question of human rights,” Marciano said. “As a world leader Canada must not overlook this opportunity to reassess prostitution laws and set a new human rights standard.”
Falle followed, talking about her own experiences in “the game,” as she called it. Using her own research and experience – suggesting that 97 per cent of prostitutes wanted to exit the profession -- she disputed the idea that prostitution was a choice, and raised concerns about how striking down the law would legitimize the profession and prevent those who want to leave from having an exit point, as well as contribute to a glamourized image of prostitution that does not reflect a dangerous reality.
“For something to be a true choice you need to be fully informed of what all the consequences are,” Falle said. “We’re not hearing what the workplace hazards are. We’re hearing the glamorized [version], but we’re not hearing the true facts.”
After the presentations, a lively discussion followed, with the speakers initially responding to each other’s points of controversy, and then answering questions from the audience. But, while the speakers frequently disagreed with one another -- Young and McIntyre butted heads over statistics and Falle questioned the amount of unreported violence -- they had shared views on the most important aspect of whether prostitutes should be charged.
“Everybody on this panel supports decriminalizing the women...who are selling themselves for whatever reasons,” McIntyre said. “The debate is about remedy.”