Dear Sir or Madam:
Do you think that Canadians have the right to dabble in whatever career choice they see fit? Do you think that sex work has a proper place in Canadian society? Have you ever wondered what it is like to be a sex worker in Canada? If you have thought about any of these questions, or perhaps answered yes to any then today’s post is right up your alley! Today we examine Canada’s landmark prostitution case, Canada (AG) v Bedford, which struck down Canada’s prostitution laws as unconstitutional. Further, we will provide a brief background on the courageous woman who appealed this issue all the way to the Supreme Court.
To begin, we must ask: who exactly is Terri-Jean Bedford? Bedford is a former prostitute, retired dominatrix and previous owner of the “Bondage Bungalow” in Thornhill, Ontario.1 Before challenging Canada’s prostitution laws in the highest court, Bedford had legal cases dating back to 1994. The “Bondage Bungalow” was raided that year and Bedford was charged under the Criminal Code for operating a bawdy house.2 Her 1994 arrest was the first time she considered challenging Canada’s prostitution laws, eventually beginning her formal challenge in 2007, alongside Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott.3
Canada (AG) v Bedford challenged several provisions of the Criminal Code relating to sex work. While selling sex for money, the act most people equate to prostitution, is not a criminal offence; several incidental acts to the selling of sex are. The appellants specifically argued that sections criminalizing the operation of a bawdy house, living off the avails of prostitution, and communicating in a public place violated the Charter.4 The women argued that s. 7 of the Charter, specifically security of the person, was infringed because sex workers were forced into dangerous situations in order to avoid being charged.5 The court unanimously agreed that the security of sex workers was jeopardized because they were forced into risky locations, and potential life-threatening situations in an attempt to avoid criminal prosecution.6
The Attorney General argued that prostitution was a “lifestyle choice” and therefore, should not receive constitutional protection.7 The Supreme Court dismissed this argument by concluding that sex workers are a marginalized population who are generally forced into this trade with little choice.8 Further, the act of selling sex is not actually illegal for those who freely choose to engage in this type of work.9 Thus, the court must only consider whether prostitution laws make this legal act more risky.10 The nine presiding justices agreed that they do.
The Supreme Court stayed their judgement for a year in the Bedford case allowing parliament to amend the prostitution laws to be aligned with the Charter. Parliament passed Bill C-36 as a result. These new prostitution laws essentially make sex work more difficult, by criminalizing the buying of sex.11 Rather than criminalizing sex work itself, the federal government has made it illegal for "John's" to pay for any sexual services. A likely result will be forcing the "buying" of sex, rather than "selling" of sex back into dangerous and secluded areas. Bill C-36 severely limits the power of the Bedford case.
Terri-Jean Bedford stated it best in an after-court interview “It’s not illegal and there’s nothing wrong with it whatsoever. It’s quite healthy and it produces a very productive man. A happy man makes a productive man.”12 The federal government should not be impeding people’s free choice to engage in a type of work they consider acceptable. Further, the government cannot pass legislation that creates dangerous working conditions for individuals. The Supreme Court of Canada agrees in the context of prostitution legislation.
Your Humble and Obedient Servant,
1 Heather Loney, “Who is Terri-Jean Bedford, the dominatrix fighting Canada’s prostitution laws” (20 December 2013), Global News, online: <www.globalnews.ca/news/1043102/who-is-terri-jean-bedford-the-dominatrix-fighting-canadas-prostitution-laws/>.
4 Canada (AG) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72 at para 61-68,  3 SCR 1101.
5 Ibid at para 60.
6 Ibid at para 60.
7 Ibid at para 83.
8 Ibid at 87.
9 Ibid at 87.
10 Ibid at 87.
11 Josh Wingrove, "Canada's new prostitution laws: Everything you need to know" (15 July 2014), The Globe and Mail, online: <www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/canadas-new-prostitution-laws-everything-you-need-to-know/article19610318/>.
12 Loney, supra note 1.