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Why legalization might be a mixed bag for prostitutes

Seargent Lorna Bruce patrols an area rife with street walkers in London, Ont, on Aug. 7, 2010.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/j.p. moczulski The Globe and Mail

For a long time, I thought there was an open-and-shut case for legalizing prostitution. Even setting aside the matter of the state telling women what they can do with their bodies, how could governments possibly defend a law that forced some of society's most vulnerable people underground, into needlessly dangerous situations?

Some of the criticisms of Tuesday's Ontario Superior Court ruling have so inane as to reinforce that view. But I have to admit that my feelings on this subject have been a little more mixed since my ride-along this summer with Lorna Bruce, the London police officer who does outreach work with street prostitutes.

For starters, rest assured that the ban on bawdy houses - one of the laws struck down in Ontario - has very little to do with these women being on the street. They're in rough, rough shape - working to support drug addictions most of them developed before they started selling themselves. The reason they're not working in-house somewhere is that nobody would have them.

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But beyond that, I was struck by the remarkably positive and trusting relationships Sergeant Bruce has developed with the women on her beat. Those relationships could save a few lives, if they allow her to notice when street workers go missing, and they could vastly improve a few others if she succeeds in nudging the women toward rehab.

I wondered, this week, if she could still do that kind of work if the anti-prostitution laws are indeed struck down. And when I called Sgt. Bruce on Wednesday and asked her, she didn't sound optimistic.

Her biggest concern is that, if street prostitutes are never arrested for communicating for the purposes of prostitution, she'll lose some of her best contact with them. She doesn't arrest them herself. But when other officers do, it often brings the women onto her radar - or, if she already knows them, gives her a chance to interact with them while they're clean and sober.

"It would be that much harder," she said. "Because that incarceration period which I rely on - as unfortunate as that sounds - that window would be gone."

Also gone, she said, would be the opportunity to identify frequent johns - something that would help investigations if any of the women go missing.

"It'll be sort of a free-for-all," she complained.

Now, despite the fact I have all the time in the world for Sgt. Bruce and the work that she does, these don't strike me as entirely persuasive arguments for keeping street prostitution illegal.

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For one thing, London is a unique case; there's little police outreach of a similar kind in other Canadian cities. In some of them police continue to be viewed by prostitutes with fear and suspicion - meaning that they're less likely to report violent crimes against them.

Even if Sgt. Bruce's work were more common, we usually don't write criminal laws solely to ensure that the people who break them get help turning their lives around. And it would be strange to keep those laws on the basis that they've served a purpose completely different from their original intent.

But the point here is that it's a little greyer than some on the pro-legalization side might think. An end to anti-prostitution laws wouldn't be a panacea for the women perceived to be treated the most unfairly. And in some cases, it might actually make things worse.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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