Every now and again I get an email telling me I support legalization of prostitution and brothels, and some media articles have repeated this misrepresentation of my position.
I think it’s important to clear up the misrepresentation as I have never advocated or supported legalization of prostitution. Nor do I support red light zones, or commercial enterprises, state licensing, and the measures of a legalized regime.
I do support reducing and eliminating violence, harm, and risk, and support labour rights, health and safety rights, and the human rights of sex workers
I have been working with organizations, individuals, and all levels of government on this issue for over a decade. I’ve also written extensively over the years on this issue. In summary, here’s what I’ve said,
For the Record:
December, 2001 – Statement in the House of Commons
Mr. Speaker, the number of women missing from the downtown east side is a tragedy. Earlier this month the joint police task force released the names of 18 more women who are missing, bringing the number to 45 women. Many of them were involved in the sex trade and are at risk to the most awful violence and death.
I believe all levels of government must co-operate with all possible resources to find out what has happened to these women and to prevent more deaths and harm from taking place. SFU criminologist, John Lowman has said repeatedly that women will continue to disappear and be killed unless Canada’s prostitution laws are changed. I implore the Minister of Justice to pay attention.
These women are not pieces of garbage that can be disposed of. They are human beings with every right to dignity, safety and hope for the future. They demand our attention.
February 2002 – Letter to Federal Minister of Justice
Mr. Minister, I believe the status quo is completely unacceptable given the enormity of the situation in Vancouver. The seriousness of this situation calls for leadership and action. I am therefore urging you to begin an immediate review of federal laws pertaining to soliciting that puts many of these women at risk on the street. It is vital to improve their safety in the community.
October 2002– The Hill Times, Time to debate the impact of Canada’s hypocritical laws relating to the sex trade
The missing women and many more who are still working the streets today are not only victims of their own tragic individual circumstances, but they also fall victim to the failure of public policy.
The criminalization of drug users and sex workers and their resulting marginalized status places them at greater and greater risk. The law not only failed them, it aided and abetted their demise. Federal laws pertaining to prostitution force women on the street into dangerous and illegal activities.
February, 2003– Libby gets her motion passed for a Parliamentary review of solicitation laws
That the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights be ordered to review the solicitation laws in order to improve the safety of sex-trade workers and communities overall, and to recommend changes that will reduce the exploitation of and violence against sex-trade workers.
February, 2004 – Libby’s Op-Ed, Solicitation Laws put Sex Trade Workers at Risk – It’s Time for Action!
The exploitation, murder and violence against sex trade workers in Canada is increasing at an alarming rate, but the laws dealing with prostitution remain unchanged and governments remain unwilling to realistically deal with this growing public safety issue that affects some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
For too long law enforcement agencies have relied on the criminal code as the primary means to contain prostitution. It has been a failure, both from the perspective of assisting and protecting women in the sex trade as well as in mitigating the impacts of street prostitution on local communities.
Urgent action to address this situation is needed on several fronts:
1)Law enforcement agencies with the support of the Minister of Justice should immediately halt enforcement of Section 213 (the communicating law) of the Criminal Code. A moratorium would help improve the relationship between women on the street and the police, and improve safety.
2)The parliamentary committee must bring in recommendations for law reform that focuses on reducing harm and exploitation. This should include decriminalization as an option. The ongoing criminalization of these women has been a human disaster and we must have the courage to change these laws.
3)Immediate help is needed to provide liveable income support and training and decent housing that is safe and affordable. The improvement of front line safety and exit supports that barely exist today, must be made a priority.
The links between deepening poverty and the sex trade are inescapable. Disastrous public policy decisions and cut backs at a provincial level are putting more women at risk every day. Increased criminalization for prostitution does nothing to address the reasons why women have become involved in the sex trade in the first place.
Through the provision of adequate and affordable housing, social assistance and minimum wage rates that reflect the real cost of living and increased education and training services, many sex workers would no longer see prostitution as their only viable alternative for survival. At this time we must consider the best way society can reduce violence against sex workers and protect the safety of local communities.
October,2004 – Statement in the House of Commons
Further to my letter of September 22nd, I again implore Minister Cotler to take urgent action and work with law enforcement agencies to place a moratorium on enforcement of the communicating laws under the Criminal Code.
The current criminalization of sex trade workers under these sections of the Code discourages or prevents women from contacting the police when their safety is in jeopardy.
As well, I continue to call on the Mayor, as Chair of the Vancouver Police Board, to conduct an inquiry into police investigation of the missing women case to determine what happened.
Violence against women, particularly of Aboriginal women, has been highlighted this week by Amnesty International in a report titled Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada. I support the recommendations in this report urge action to address the ongoing social and economic marginalization of indigenous women and to ensure the police and justice systems adequately protect these women.
March 2006 – Libby’s Op-Ed
Decriminalization is needed to protect women
There is no other group in our society as stigmatized, criminalized and misrepresented as often as women involved in prostitution. Everyone has an opinion, but it rarely reflects the harsh reality faced by sex workers who encounter violence, poverty, discrimination and isolation.
Prostitution is legal in Canada, and consensual sex between two adults for money is not itself an offence. However, under the Criminal Code, most activities related to prostitution are illegal, including communicating, keeping a common bawdy house and living off the avails of prostitution.
While much of the public debate has focused on street prostitution and 90 per cent of police enforcement is directed at arresting men and women for communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution, studies show that approximately 80 per cent or more of sex work is off the street.
Sex workers are fearful to report violence, assault and coercion, because of the illegal environment they operate in, and the retaliation and criminalization they face from law enforcement.
We need a comprehensive strategy that focuses law enforcement on eliminating the harms and violence in sex work, while providing real choices to women, based on human rights, dignity and opportunities for quality of life.
This broad approach is not a simplistic “legalization” regime; rather, it’s a realistic effort to repeal harmful laws in order to improve the health and safety of sex workers and reduce the violence they experience.
December, 2006 Libby’s statement on the Justice Sub-Committee on Solicitation Laws.
The Subcommittee began its work on October 2, 2003 as a result of my motion unanimously adopted in parliament on February 9, 2003 , to review prostitution laws to improve the safety of sex trade workers and the community in general and to make recommendations to reduce the exploitation and violence against sex workers.
The Subcommittee held both public and in-camera meetings in Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Vancouver, Edmonton and Winnipeg from Jan 31 to May 30, 2005. We heard from almost 100 witness, including residents, academics, private citizens, members of the judiciary, police officers, sex workers and community organizations. The Subcommittee also met informally with well over 100 sex workers and heard directly about their life experiences, the problems they face and solutions recommended.
The Sub-Committee’s final report has now been tabled in the House of Commons.
• Prostitution is legal in Canada
Consensual sex between two adults for money is not in itself an offence. However, under the criminal code, most activities related to prostitution are illegal. Section 213 of the Criminal Code makes communicating for the purposes of prostitution, keeping a common bawdy house and living off the avails of prostitution, illegal.
• Current legislative framework is inadequate
Almost all witnesses agreed that the status quo is not protecting sex workers or local communities. These views support the 20 year old Fraser Report which argued that it was “the contradictory and often self-defeating nature of the Criminal Code that was at the root of the high levels of street prostitution in Canada.”
• The Communicating Law (Code 213) displaces the problem
When sex workers are displaced to isolated areas, usually the result of complaints, John sweeps etc. they face greater risks for harm, even death, and become easier targets for predators.
• Only 5% to 20% of all prostitution is street related
Although 90%of enforcement is directed to the communication law related to street prostitution, studies overwhelmingly show that street prostitution makes up somewhere between 5% and 20% of all forms prostitution in Canada. Most information and statistics on prostitution is on street prostitution.
• Prostitutes are fearful to report violence, assault and coercion
Because of the illegal environment they operate in, women and men working as prostitutes are reluctant to report crimes committed against them, are subject to police harassment and racial profiling. Increased policing has led to moving the trade further underground.
• There are various forms of prostitution
Prostitution can range from abhorrent acts of debt bondage, to the ‘survival’ sex trade, to consenting adult activities. It includes street prostitution, escort and call-girl services, message parlours, private apartments, clubs, bars, hotels etc.
• Not all prostitutes consider themselves victims
Perhaps the most difficult idea to understand is that some women are working in prostitution by choice. We heard consistent testimony from sex workers across the country that many women work independently, work for the advantages of the trade (schedule, wages) and develop strong relationships with their clients.
Conclusions from the Subcommittee
• The status quo is unacceptable
• Any strategy must encompass: prevention, education, harm reduction and treatment, and must consider the underlying factors of poverty, social isolation, inequality, poor housing and under/un-employment.
• Zero tolerance when it comes to the sexual exploitation of children and youth (under 18 years of age)
• The State should protect persons practicing prostitution from violence and exploitation.
Recommendations from Libby Davies
• There is near unanimous agreement from all the witnesses heard from, that the current status and regime of law enforcement, pertaining to prostitution is unworkable, contradictory and unacceptable. It has created an environment of marginalization and violence, with negative impacts both on sex workers, and affected local communities. The current regime of law enforcement, particularly the communicating law, is harmful and further endangers sex workers.
• Any changes for liberalization in the law must focus on adult activities. There is unanimous agreement that there should be no tolerance for the sexual exploitation of minors as defined by law (under 18 years of age), nor should we allow the criminalization of minors.
• We must retain laws against trafficking, as against someone’s will, while ensuring that trafficked victims are provided safety, status, and help.
• We must recognize that sex work involves many different forms, from debt bondage, to survival sex work, to consenting choices being made.
• Sexual activities, whether or not payment is involved, between consenting adults that does not harm others, should not be prohibited by the State.
• The key principle and issue at hand, is to distinguish between what is consenting between adults, and what is not. The current laws pertaining to prostitution cannot do this and thus impose a regime that, in and of itself, is harmful to those involved in sex work. Law enforcement should be focussed against fraud, coercion, violence, child sexual abuse, rape, and sexual assault, whether or not in the context of prostitution.
• Prostitutes are fearful to report violence, assault and coercion because of their illegal status. Their poor relationship with law enforcement authorities, contributes to the danger they face. Better training of law enforcement agencies is needed.
• The federal Government must come to terms with the contradictions and impossibility of the status-quo, and engage in a process of law reform that will lead to the decriminalization of laws pertaining to prostitution, thus allowing criminal sanctions to be focussed on harmful situations. This process should involve further research and involve sex workers and their advocates, provincial and municipal representatives, as well as other stakeholders, such as academic experts and law enforcement officials.
• Concrete efforts must be made immediately, to improve the safety of sex workers and assist them to exit the sex trade, if they are not there by choice, by providing significant resources for income support, education and training, poverty alleviation, and treatment for addictions.
January 2007– Rabble.ca, Sex Workers Require Better Protection
by Libby Davies
The tragedy of the missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside will generate enormous media attention as the trial gets underway. As the Member of Parliament representing Vancouver East (including the Downtown Eastside), I want to express my support and sympathy to the families and friends of the missing women who continue to grieve and be exposed to the violent and horrifying experience of what happened to these women.
The tragedy of this situation is far reaching. For many in the Downtown Eastside and beyond there is a sense of loss and grief as people face the enormity of what has taken place. It raises many troubling questions about our society and about why these women were so at risk and vulnerable to violence, exploitation and death, and why so many sex workers continue to be at risk today.
The disappearance of more than 60 women from the Downtown Eastside and hundreds more from across the country, also raises deeply disturbing questions about Canada’s justice system and how it failed. Despite the recent media attention to Vancouver’s missing women, no significant changes have been made at any level of government to protect sex workers, who remain at risk.
I will continue to call for law reform, immediate support for exit strategies, and the need for a public inquiry, to ensure that necessary changes are made at all levels of government, to best protect the rights and safety of sex workers and affected communities.
Current laws around prostitution make street level sex workers vulnerable to selective law enforcement as well as exploitation and violence. Survival sex workers are often poor and drug dependent, and are reluctant to seek protection under the law.
Cuts in social programs and spending, together with increasing poverty, particularly over the past decade, have forced more women into survival sex trades.
The Parliamentary Committee on Justice and Human Rights recently completed its report on prostitution laws, The Challenge of Change: a Study of Canada’s Criminal Prostitution Laws.
The Committee began its work October 2, 2003 as a result of my motion unanimously adopted in Parliament to review prostitution laws to improve the safety of sex trade workers and the community in general, and to make recommendations to reduce the exploitation and violence against sex trade workers.
The report outlines the failure of the criminal code to protect sex workers and local communities. When sex workers are displaced to isolated areas as a result of the communicating law, they face greater risk for harm and death and become easier targets for predators.
There was near unanimous agreement from witnesses heard at the committee that the current status and regime of law enforcement pertaining to prostitution is unworkable, contradictory and unacceptable. It has created an environment of marginalization and violence, with negative impacts on both sex workers and affected local communities.
Sex workers are fearful to report violence, assault and coercion because of their illegal status. Their poor relationship with law enforcement authorities, contributes to the danger they face. Better training of law enforcement agencies is needed.
I believe the federal government must come to terms with the contradictions and impossibility of the status quo, and engage in a process of law reform that will lead to the decriminalization of laws pertaining to prostitution and focus criminal sanctions on harmful situations.
It is also critical for all levels of government to immediately improve the safety of sex workers and assist them to exit the sex trade if they are not there by choice, by providing significant resources for poverty alleviation and income support, education and training, and treatment for addictions.
In February 2002, I called on the Mayor of Vancouver, as Chair of the Vancouver Police Board, to support an inquiry into the police investigation of the missing women to determine what happened. This public inquiry still needs to happen.
February, 2007 – Libby’s statement in the House of Commons
Mr. Speaker, every Valentine’s Day for the last 16 years, hundreds of people gather in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, to join in the annual Women’s Memorial March.
Women from the community, and especially Aboriginal women, sisters and brothers, mothers, daughters and sons, march in memory of the hundreds of women who die each year from violence.
This year is particularly sad and difficult for the families and friends of the women whose murders are before the courts, and who daily, are re-living those tragic events. The Highway of tears, in Northern BC, is further evidence of the appalling situation facing Aboriginal women.
Members of the federal NDP caucus stand in solidarity with the family, friends and activists who are speaking out on this issue. We demand that all levels of government commit to end the cycle of violence against women, to improve the safety of women in the sex trade, and to provide desperately needed housing and income support.
Too many women have suffered, and gone missing, across Canada. It is time to act.
There is substantial difference between decriminalization and legalization.
Legalization implies a state run licensing system, which I do not support, whereas decriminalization removes those sections of the criminal code pertaining to adult consensual activity and focuses law enforcement on situations where there is exploitation, coercion, and violence, just as we would with any other activity.
The Canadian news paper Xtra, published one of the more straightforward articles about decriminalization that I’ve read, explaining that legalizing sex work means instituting regulations that treat prostitution as a vice that needs to be contained and controlled, as opposed to decriminalization which treats it like work. Using New Zealand and Australia as examples, the article goes on to explain that under decriminalization sex workers are allowed all the labour-related rights and freedoms as any other worker.
I have supported the idea of a safe house, run as a co-operative by sex workers for their own safety and control. I have also always advocated for the need to have resources, strategies and support for sex workers who want to exit the sex trade. Clearly the survival sex trade often involves women who are impoverished and suffering from trauma and addictions.
I will continue to work on this issue to make sure there are changes to address the need to protect the dignity, human rights and safety of women.