Sex work, brothels, should be legal

It’s time to stop hassling prostitutes for an honest day’s work, writes Denise Balkissoon

Work. We do it to make money.

Sometimes we like it. Sometimes we don’t.

With the money we make, we feed, clothe and house ourselves and our loved ones.


We do it for different reasons.

Fun. Reproduction. Security. Love.

Some of us have another reason.


For some, work is sex.

Sex has always been sold. In some countries prostitution is fully or partially legalized. In some places it’s a tourist attraction. But in most countries prostitution is against the law.

In Canada, prostitution is legal .

But it’s illegal to communicate for the purposes of prostitution, run a sex service out of your home, get a friend to arrange clients for you, pass a customer along if you’re sick, or support your family on your earnings.

And because sex work is criminalized, workers can’t report violence.

“Sometimes you have a problem with a client and you can’t even call the police,” says Naomi, a 27-year-old Haitian-Canadian who has worked the streets in Ottawa and Montreal for the past four years. She has a scar on her hand where a client knifed her trying to take his money back after she did her job.

Another woman, Angel, worked in Victoria B.C. before coming to Ottawa. Two of her friends in Victoria were murdered while working. Five per cent of the female murder victims over the age of 16 in Canada are known prostitutes. Twenty-two known prostitutes were murdered in 1991 and 1992.

Some might think prostitutes know their job is dangerous, and therefore should expect violence, or should choose another job. But sometimes there’s no choice.

Like Naomi, for example. Last April she was arrested and put on a one-year probation. She is not allowed in the Byward Market any time of the day.

But she needs to make money. So she works in the Market anyway, and risks re-arrest and a fine or jail term.

I met Naomi and Angel at Sophie’s Hope, a drop-in centre for women aged 16 and older. Opened one year ago this December, Sophie’s is a place women can go to warm up, get a meal in their stomachs, and socialize.

Sophie’s founder Francoise Pelletier strongly supports decriminalizing prostitution. She says it would let prostitutes report violence without fear of incriminating themselves. It means they could turn in their pimps. They could also leave the profession if they found other work — something that is often prevented by their criminal records.

“It will give dignity to those who need it — dignity in a chosen profession,” says Pelletier.

Pelletier isn’t alone in this position. The Canadian prostitutes’ rights movement dates back to Supreme Court cases of the 1970s, and there are currently associate Sex Worker Alliances in Vancouver, Toronto, Niagara region and Halifax.

The Alliances of Vancouver and Toronto are on record supporting decriminalization, and demanding that sex work be recognized as a legitimate economic activity. Worldwide, the International Congress for Prostitutes Rights has held two World Whores Congresses, and in 1985 drew up a charter of rights in which decriminalization is the first item on the agenda.

In Ottawa, the police and local governments don’t provide estimates of how many street prostitutes work in the city. But we all know they exist.

Regional Coun. Diane Holmes says attempts to control sex trades in Ottawa are mostly limited to street sweeps, and says that this is only “moving the problem from area to area.” Studies from Vancouver and Toronto show that cracking down on street prostitution leads to an increase in bawdy-houses and vice versa. Current efforts to “control” prostitution are a waste of time and money. They don’t work.
It is the oldest profession in the world.

“The first time is hard,” Naomi says. “But now it’s my job. Even if I have money, sometimes I still go to work. It’s a job like any kind of job.”

Sex work is work. Those who do it deserve safety, respect, and the right to be protected, the same as the rest of us.