The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, enacted by Parliament on Tuesday, is an exercise in futility. The exploited persons in question – prostitutes – will not be more secure than they were. If anything, they may be less so.
Nearly a year ago, the Supreme Court struck down the three Criminal Code sections having to do with prostitution – prostitution itself never having been illegal – because the court concluded that the law amounted to a threat to the security of sex workers. It gave the government a year to draft a new law.
In response, Minister of Justice Peter MacKay mistakenly chose to make it a criminal act to purchase sex – a flip on the old laws, which made it difficult, albeit legal, to sell sex. But purchase and sale are not separable. And if the transaction becomes even more furtive than before, as the bill seems to intend, then prostitutes, who are overwhelmingly women, are very likely to be even more isolated and endangered. Which is precisely why the Supreme Court struck down the old laws.
The PCEPA makes it extremely difficult for anyone to advertise sexual services. A magazine or newspaper that includes an advertisement from a prostitute will be guilty of a crime. A person who helps a prostitute set up a website will be a criminal. And without prior communications by phone or Internet, it will be difficult for a prostitute to scrutinize potential customers and assess how dangerous they may be.
It is almost as if the government wanted to force prostitutes onto the streets, making them stand around, implicitly soliciting customers, and diminishing the quality of neighbourhoods – without protectors and without prospective witnesses to violence.
The Conservatives' now enacted bill, for all its faults, is at least a bill. The NDP and the Liberals offered only a few minor amendments, but they did not venture to commit themselves to any overall approach to the conundrums around prostitution.
The wheel needs to be reinvented. But all the federal parties have failed to put forward a new law that humanely balances the interests of society and with the real needs and fears of prostitutes so clearly articulated by the Supreme Court. Once this bill becomes law, it will find itself back in court.