“I feel like a citizen,”said Valerie Scott, a former sex worker, after the Ontario Court of Appeals ruled last year that Canadian laws criminalizing aspects of sex work put sex workers at greater risk of violence and harm. Sexually marginalized people everywhere can appreciate her insight that it’s a right of citizenship not to have your own government pass laws that threaten your security.
Canada’s Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, recently affirmed and expanded the lower court decision that sparked Scott’s statement. On December 20, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, writingfor a unanimous court, said that the challenged provisions impose “dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky – but legal – activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risks.”
Three provisions in the criminal code had made aspects of sex work illegal. The “bawdy house” law prevented people from working in a fixed, safe location; another prevented sex workers from procuring security services; while the “communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution” provision prevented people from screening clients and negotiating the use of condoms or a safe location. The lawyers were arguing not for abstract principles but demonstrating how laws and legal policing can put sex workers at risk and cost lives.
The law should be there to protect. Too often it does not. This ruling is a victory for anyone who faces violence and discrimination because of laws that are deemed to reflect certain moral structures and social mores. LGBT people, who also can be found in sex work, face violence from many of the same kinds of so-called “morality-based” laws and attitudes.
The Supreme Court decision is refreshing in a year in which a narrow kind of “morality” has trampled on the rights of LGBT and other sexually diverse people in India, Singapore, Russia, Uganda, and Nigeria by upholding or introducing further punishments for adult consensual sexual relations. These often antiquated laws put people’s lives and health at risk, by creating and supporting an environment of intolerance and hampering access to essential health care.
It’s no surprise that violence against those who are or perceived to be gay has escalated in Russia in light of the introduction of homophobic laws there, or that mobs in Jamaica feel they can act with impunity against LGBT people, or that criminal laws hamper effective prevention and treatment for HIV and AIDS for men who have sex with men.
Rejoicing in saying “I am a citizen” applies to sex workers whatever their sexual orientation, and it applies to LGBT people too.