Police still assessing implications after top court strikes down prostitution laws
Schmidt is the founder of Project PEACE, a group that offers help to sex workers, whether it be finding housing, dealing with their addictions or handling the police. She cites the case of serial killer Gary Ridgway – better known as the Green River Killer – who targeted women in the sex trade, killing as many as 71 before he was caught.
“I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed,” Ridgway infamously said after his arrest and confession in 2001. “I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing.”
Serial Killer Robert Pickton, the B.C. pig farmer also responsible for the murder of dozens of prostitutes, was also able to get away with murder for so long because no one was looking for them.
“It's biggest effect right now is an ideological one,” Schmidt said. “It establishes the idea that sex workers are human beings who have rights and are protected by the Charter.”
In striking down the current laws, the court ruled women in the sex trade are being forced into putting themselves in extremely dangerous situations, violating their constitutional rights. However, the top court gave the federal government a year to come up with new laws.
It's too soon to say what effect the ruling will have on the street, Schmidt said, but added that Greater Sudbury Police had already changed the way it approaches prostitution.
“I've worked closely with (police) over the last couple of years, and I think they've made a legitimate effort to try and understand some of the root causes, to try and build capacity with women who are engaging in prostitution,” she said.
“They're working with some other organizations to try and reduce the harm that can result from prostitution, to look at some of the safety issues, to look at them as people who are also protected by the Criminal Code.
“Enforcement isn't their only priority anymore. Safety of sex workers has also become a priority.”
Deputy Chief Al Lekun said police forces across Canada are looking at the ruling and trying to determine exactly what it will mean for them.
“We need to understand the effect of the decision on our enforcement abilities,” Lekun said.“Our current strategy in relation to the sex trade involves a number of community partners, and it's not only about enforcement … Our strategy also includes education, awareness, dealing with the underlying issues and root causes of prostitution in the first place.”
With a renewed focus on trying to understand why women end up as sex workers, as well as putting more focus on the johns who pay for sex, Lekun said their strategy has already changed from what it was a few years ago. Now they will have to work with community partners like Project PEACE to decide what is going to change.
“It really is about looking at the conditions in our community that lead people to engage in the sex trade,” Lekun said. “With our partners, obviously we want to address those conditions and help people make better decisions.
“We have to look at this decision and decide what impact it will have on our collaborative strategy, what changes we need to make – or whether it has any impact on it.”
“What's going to happen is that policing organizations across the country are going to have to look at this and they're going to have to switch strategy,” she said. “They're going to have to be prepared.”
While numbers vary, she estimates there are about 40-45 women who work as prostitutes in Sudbury, about half on the street. Since cameras cover most of downtown, Kathleen Street has become where Johns are known to frequent.
“In Sudbury, there is some going on indoors — in some dancing parlours and that kind of thing,” she said. “Then, you have people who might only go out and work once a month. Or they might be away from it for a year, then go back.
“I've seen women who have exited prostitution for, god, five years. I saw an individual recently who had exited for probably 15. And she went back for 12 weeks.”
While many people assume drug addiction is the primary motive, Schmidt says that hasn't been her experience. Usually it's economic, she said, and the drugs come later.
“When they hit the street, there's so much drugs in that milieu that it's only a matter of time before they become addicted,” she said. “For the majority, it starts off as an economic imperative and then they develop a drug addiction. Now, they're working solely for the drugs.”
It's different for male addicts, she said, because they can't sell their bodies as easily to pay for drug habits. So they tend to rob houses or businesses, which makes it much more likely that they'll get caught.
“But female prostitutes have quick access to money,” Schmidt said, and their chances of getting caught are much lower.
“Someone could work for two years in prostitution and never get arrested, particularly if they move indoors,” she said. “That quick access to cash can exacerbate the addiction.”
Whatever laws are formulated must take into account the complexity of what's really going on, she said. But even allowing, for example, bordellos could be disastrous because it could lead to human trafficking of sex workers.
“They're going to have to take a hard look at letting them move indoors — but they have to do it in a way that works.”