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Canada’s Prostitution Laws – 2009

Supporters of the prostitution industry want us to believe that women would be safe if men’s purchase of women for sex is legalized. In the name of women’s security, they are arguing in an Ontario court this week that male johns and pimps have a constitutional right to buy and sell women. They are claiming that prostitution is women’s work and that legalizing it would advance women’s liberty. Opposition is dismissed as based on “moral panic.” A closer look at the violent reality of prostitution exposes the utter fallacy of these claims.

Andrew Evans was convicted of second-­‐degree murder by a jury in Vancouver last week for the 2007 killing of Nicole Parisien, a 33-­‐year-­‐old aboriginal woman. Mr. Evans admitted that he killed Ms. Parisien by beating and strangling her and that he dumped her body in the bushes. The only legal issue was whether he intended to kill her when he attacked her. The answer determined whether he was guilty of murder or manslaughter.

Legally, this case broke no new ground. But a closer look tells us a lot about male violence against women and its relationship to prostitution.

Mr. Evans told the police that he contacted Ms. Parisien after finding her through the “erotic services” category on Craigslist. The Kitsilano apartment where they met was not her home; the evidence suggested that it was used regularly for prostitution. Online services such as Craigslist are becoming an increasingly important venue for the advertising of prostitution.

Mr. Evans said he agreed to pay Ms. Parisien $200. He became enraged when she couldn’t maintain his erection, hitting her and choking her to death.

The murders of aboriginal women, mostly by white men, sometimes connected to the prostitution industry, are all too common in this country. Aboriginal women’s groups and Amnesty International have documented hundreds of cases of missing and murdered women. Many have not been solved or even fully investigated, the disappearances blamed on the women’s “high-­‐risk” lifestyle.

Being prostituted places women at risk, to be sure, but it is not a “lifestyle” that aboriginal women just happen to choose in larger numbers than other women. Promoters of prostitution want the public to believe that prostitution is safe when it happens indoors. But moving prostitution out of sight does nothing more than keep the abuse private and the abusers mostly anonymous.

Mr. Evans was by all accounts a regular guy – a former member of his university rugby team who had volunteered as a peer counsellor. But he was possessed of a sense of male sexual entitlement that led him to believe that he should be able to buy a woman who would meet his sexual demands and that she was worth so little that she could be physically assaulted when she failed to do so.

Ms. Parisien’s family has rejected the suggestion that she was a prostitute, maintaining that she was an “escort.” This is an understandable response to grief. But dressing up this abuse as a form of work obscures its casual brutality.

Ms. Parisien was advertised in a mainstream medium, she was prostituted at a prominent apartment building, the suite was monitored with a living-­‐room security camera and yet she died within a minute or two of Mr. Evans’s first blow. Legalizing men’s purchase of women for sex would change nothing about the arrangement through which Mr. Evans met and killed Ms. Parisien, but it would officially confirm his belief that he was entitled to use her body until he was satisfied. It would also absolve the state from doing anything to address the social conditions that produce a supply of women to be prostituted, or providing the necessary support for women to exit.

The violence in prostitution comes not from the law, but from male pimps and buyers such as Andrew Evans. Canada ought to follow the example of Sweden, decriminalizing women like Nicole Parisien but criminalizing the men who buy and pimp them. We need laws that support the abolition of prostitution rather than its normalization. But if the courts strike down the prostitution laws because they find that men have a Charter-­‐protected right to buy women’s bodies, it will become much more difficult for Parliament to enact a law that recognizes prostitution as fundamentally contrary to women’s equality.

Janine Benedet is an associate professor in the faculty of law at the University of British Columbia.