“Sex Work Is Work”



Interview with Katrina Pacey, social justice attorney

VANCOUVER, Canada, Dec 18 (IPS) – Katrina Pacey is a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver. Pivot is engaged in social justice work through legal reform in the inner city of Vancouver. Pacey is currently taking a case to the British Columbia Supreme Court, and eventually, the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing that the country’s prostitution laws violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.Pacey recently spoke to IPS correspondent Am Johal.

IPS: How did this case originate and can you give some historical context behind it?

KP: As far as Pivot’s involvement with sex work and law reform, we were inspired to delve in to it when we starting meeting with women in the downtown eastside of Vancouver to discuss the human rights issues they face. Criminalisation in relation to their addiction and their involvement in sex work and the lack of safety in sex work became prevalent.

We were motivated by the fact the federal government was interested in looking at these matters. We carried out research and wrote a report. We were quite hopeful. We felt a Charter challenge would be worthwhile, and we might need to do that. We were approached by Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society. They are a group of current and former sex workers in the Downtown Eastside, they have come into sex work through difficult circumstances. These are very marginalised women. They were interested in being the plaintiff in this case. They came forward to Pivot and we were formally retained. We filed in August of this year.

IPS: In terms of how the law works now, if someone is found engaging in prostitution or activities surround it, what is the typical judgment, the most commonly charged section?

KP: The communication for the purpose of prostitution in a public place section of the Criminal Code is the most common type of charge, targeted through undercover operations. It is not viewed by the courts as a very serious offence, but a nuisance — it’s unlikely that it would lead to jail in any significant way. It is more likely to lead to probation or a fine. For a sex worker, it could be a night in jail.

IPS: The current public policy framework is enough of an impediment that it drives a certain kind of prostitution underground. Is this one of the impetuses behind the attempt to strike down the laws?

KP: The impact of having a conviction for a prostitution-related offence is significant. And regardless of the punishment, the implications of being involved in the criminal justice system can be difficult for people. That mere fact that it is criminalised impacts the conditions for sex work. They can’t organise their work in a way that doesn’t undermine their safety because of the laws that are currently in place.

For example, you can’t work indoors, say in an single-room occupancy hotel room in the downtown eastside. It is against the law. It is a tangible example of why many sex workers have to work at street level. And they have to work in industrial areas where they are less likely to be detected.

IPS: There are certain women’s groups and aboriginal groups who are opposed to decriminalisation or legalisation, especially related to coercion involved in being in the sex trade in the first place. There are historic reasons for this. There is a split amongst civil society around this issue. Can you speak to that?

KP: Those who are not supportive of total decriminalisation express concerns based on their perspective that prostitution is an inherently exploitive activity. They see it as always non-consensual, they see it as an act of violence. It is within that framework that they say that by decriminalising it, we’re accepting, allowing it to happen and perpetuating it. It is the argument we hear most often.

The flip side of that, those who argue in favour of decriminalisation, argue it from a spectrum of perspectives. Some advocates of decriminalisation don’t like it and don’t believe anyone would choose this type of work if they had a range of options in life. But they still believe that sex workers should be safe and support harm reduction. The more “sex-work is work” perspective says that people engaging in this are consenting adults, we should be allowed to make their own decisions about their own bodies.

The commonality, the thing that is the agreement amongst all groups, is that nobody wants anyone to have to do this work out of sheer desperation. The common thread is that we need to pursue and support and strengthen social services and social supports that will truly assist someone, provide them with the options that they don’t have to do this work if they don’t want to. Assist people to get out of the poverty, addiction, housing and homelessness that can lead them into sex work.

IPS: With decriminalization, there ends up being a gaudy tourism industry that develops around these issues, specific neighbourhoods become zoned in a particular way. It creates a kind of economy which can be detrimental to particular areas, even though it already exists in an underground way now. What are public policy frameworks that could work in this particular context?

KP: It’s a big question mark. I think the question is what would Vancouver look like given the specific culture of our community, what would the industry look like? For example, there is a cooperatively run brothel proposal, a sex-worker driven proposal, a safe working space for sex workers.

What if a bawdy house opens up next door to someone’s house? The reality is that there will be some diversity on how to deal with these issues. In talking to sex workers, they say that they work in business that needs to operate discreetly, in order for clients to want to go there.

New Zealand, which may have a similar cultural context, similar social structure in some respects, has not seen an explosion of neon signs with naked, painted women in windows. The industry has remained discreet, but has become safer.

IPS: Can you speak specifically to the Charter Challenge?

KP: We are at the BC Supreme Court level right now. That is the first level of court for the case that we are pursuing. We are seeking a declaration, asking the court to assess the constitutionality of three laws — the communicating law, the procuring law and bawdy house law. We refer to section 7 of the Charter: life, liberty and security of the person.

Security of the person relates to issues of safety, we will argue these laws place people in conditions of violence that is unacceptable to our society and our principles of justice.

Liberty — we say sex workers face liberty constraints that are not justifiable.

For life, we say that these laws factor in to the deaths of sex workers.

We are also making an equality argument. We say that these law perpetuate the existing inequality that sex workers already suffer, that these laws make their situation worse.

There will be intervenors. There will be appeals and then Supreme Court of Canada.



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