Lawyers representing the Catholic Civil Rights League told the Ontario Court of Appeal that 'prostitution is antithetical to the fundamental values of Canadians'.

Prostitution immoral and exploitative, court hears

  • June 17, 2011

Striking down Canada's anti-prostitution laws would violate the “fundamental moral values” of protecting human dignity, and would infringe on a woman's rights to liberty and security, lawyers representing the Catholic Civil Rights League told the Ontario Court of Appeal.

“Prostitution is antithetical to the fundamental values of Canadians,” said lawyer Ranjan Agarawal on June 16. He was representing the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Christian Legal Fellowship and REAL Women of Canada.

“Prostitution is immoral. It takes the most intimate human activity and commodifies it. It is that commodification that causes violence, drug use, the trafficking of women, the exploitation of women in the economic margins of society.”

The federal and Ontario governments are appealing an Ontario judge's decision that struck down some sections of Canada’s prostitution laws as being unconstitutional.

The Catholic Civil Rights League were among several interveners in the federal and Ontario government's five-day appeal of a decision last November by Ontario judge Susan Himel. Himel ruled that Criminal Code provisions that prohibit living off the avails, keeping a common bawdy house and soliciting for purposes of prostitution infringed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Justice Marc Rosenberg, one of the five judges hearing the appeal, challenged Agarwal on his case for injecting morality in the debate: “You are losing me. Why is this relevant to anything?”

Historically, Canada's parliamentarians “chose to eradicate prostitution because it is morally wrong,” Agarwal responded. He said past parliamentarians sought to eradicate the “slave trap,” also known as prostitution.

“If we deny this appeal, we deny 120 years of Canadian history,” Agarawal added.

University of British Columbia law professor Janine Benedet made an impassioned plea to protect women who are vulnerable to exploitation. In particular, she noted how aboriginal women make up a disproportionate number of women working in prostitution.

Benedet represented the Women's Coalition, a group of seven non-profit groups combating violence against women and sexual exploitation across Canada. The coalition included the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, the Native Women's Association of Canada and the Vancouver Rape Relief Society.

“The Charter rights of prostituted women are not advanced by decriminalizing prostitution,” Benedet told the court.

Benedet said Himel “failed to look at the obligation of the state to protect women and stop their exploitation.”

And she highlighted several international treaties against women's exploitation, including UN treaties against human trafficking.

Instead of criminalizing women who work in prostitution, Benedet suggested that the clients and men who profit from the sale of sex be prosecuted. Benedet also challenged the litigants' claim that women would be safer working indoors instead of in street prostitution.

“It's not streets and apartments that kill women. Women are killed by johns and pimps,” she said.

“It's not the law keeping them on the street. This is why grandma's house is not the solution to the problem and (serial killer Robert) Picton does not go to grandma's house,” Benedet explained.

Decriminalizing prostitution would increase the demand for it and would also increase the incidence of violence, she argued.

A lawyer representing the Canadian Civil Liberities Association argued that the current anti-prostitution laws are putting women's lives at risk “where the effect of legislation is to force someone to choose between bodily integrity and criminal sanction.”

Lawyer Cynthia Petersen, representing two sex workers' organizations in Toronto called Maggie's and POWER, objected to earlier arguments that prostitution is “inherently degrading” and “male-dominated.”

“All consensual sex work by adults is legitimate labour. All sex workers, regardless of the circumstances they work in, are entitled to the same rights,” she said.

Petersen told the court that “for many women, (prostitution) is an empowering choice”

“Many sex workers choose to engage in sex work voluntarily,” she said.

Diane Matte, spokesperson for the Women's Coalition, told The Catholic Register that's not the case for a majority of women in the sex trade.

“A good proportion of women enter under 18 (years of age),” Matte said.

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