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Decriminalize female prostitution, keep penalties against clients: coalition

OTTAWA – A coalition of groups says it will urge the Supreme Court of Canada to decriminalize the work of female sex workers, while keeping the criminal penalties against pimps and clients.

The high court will hold a hearing next week that will determine the future of the country’s prostitution laws.

The case stems from an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that struck down a section of the law that forbids brothels, but upheld a ban on communication for the purposes of prostitution, which effectively makes street prostitution illegal.

The Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution is one of the nearly two dozen groups that have been granted intervener status to argue before the court.

The group argues that men are the main benefactors of the sex industry — as pimps, customers and brothel owners.

The coalition is made up of seven organizations, including the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, the Native Women’s Association of Canada, and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies.

“It’s an asymmetrical position of: decriminalize the women, maintain the criminalization of men, even though it’s never happened,” said Kim Pate, head of Elizabeth Fry.

The case struck down the Criminal Code ban on bawdy houses because the law puts sex workers in danger by forcing them to work outside.

The Ontario court case involved three women: retired dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, former prostitute Valerie Scott and Vancouver sex worker Amy Lebovitch.

They argued the laws related to prostitution violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Prostitution itself is not illegal in Canada, though many of the key activities are banned under the three sections of the Criminal Code.

Diane Matte, head of a Quebec group dedicated to ending sexual exploitation, said the coalition’s proposal is based on the so-called “Nordic model” of prostitution legislation, adopted in Sweden, Norway and Iceland that criminalizes pimps and johns, but protects prostitutes from prosecution.

“We want to be very clear that if we lose this battle there will be a lot of consequences on women and women’s equality, particularly for native women and society as a whole.”

Alan Young, the lawyer for the women in the Ontario case, has said the argument being put forth by the coalition is premature.

Young has said that the focus should be on invalidating the law first, by having it struck down, so that Parliament can consider what to do next.