When Susan Davis heard that the Supreme Court had struck down three of Canada’s prostitution laws as unconstitutional, she celebrated by uncorking a bottle of champagne that she had been saving for 10 years.
“It’s huge,” the long-time sex worker and advocate said by phone from Vancouver. “You can’t help but think of the women who didn’t make it. But we all celebrated together.”
However, Davis told the Georgia Straight that she’s “afraid” of the laws that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government might come up with in response to the ruling, which was released today (December 20). She would prefer to see the feds opt for decriminalization and not make any new laws on prostitution.
“Kidnapping is illegal,” Davis said. “Extortion is illegal. Unlawful confinement is illegal. Assault, rape, even human trafficking is specifically illegal. Why do we need two sets of laws to protect people?”
Davis called Conservative MP Joy Smith “one of the biggest threats to the safety of sex workers in this country”. Smith issued today a statement promoting what’s known as the Nordic model, which targets clients by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services. According to Davis, this model has proved to be a failure in Sweden.
“Even their parliamentarians understand that it isn’t working,” Davis said. “It is a moral statement. Those laws are about ideology. They’re not about people. So, I am afraid. But at least in Vancouver we’ve laid the foundation for balanced thinking on this. Here, more than anywhere else in Canada, people understand that we can’t make those kinds of mistakes. There’s no time for ideology. We have to do something pragmatic in light of the disaster in the case of the missing women.”
In Vancouver, Davis noted, both city hall and the police are making efforts to prioritize the safety and dignity of sex workers. She pointed to the Vancouver Police Department’s Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines report, which states: “Sex work involving consenting adults is not an enforcement priority for the VPD.”
Davis asserted that one barrier to progress is the falsehoods—one being that sex workers were all abused as children—spread by opponents of prostitution and believed by many people.
“Those myths have been dispelled by this finding,” Davis said. “If you read what the judges say about those statistics, they’re not real. Those are made-up statistics that these people use to profit from the rescue industry, and they don’t care. They’ve stated openly that they don’t care if a few of us die in the fight for the greater good. That’s illegal, and that’s what the court has said today.”
According to Davis, the Supreme Court ruling is “not a blanket solution” and change won’t happen overnight. But she believes the decision will make police think twice about shutting down “safe workplaces” and forcing sex workers on to the streets.
Davis hopes sex workers will organize and establish an industry association and trade guilds in order to negotiate with business owners. She wants to see industry-wide standards for occupational health and safety.
“If we’re able to be free of these Criminal Code restrictions, we can exercise our right to associate and begin to bring stability and safety to our industry,” Davis said. “Only then can we shine a dark light in every corner and expose exploitation. All of this re-criminalization and driving it underground isn’t going to help anyone. We need to be able to open the doors and see what’s happening inside.”