Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but …

A dominatrix, a former sex-trade worker and a working prostitute go into a courtroom, and the judge says, Wouldn't it be great if this was just a tasteless joke? We could all have a laugh and get on with our business. But it's no joke.

A dominatrix, a former sex-trade worker and a working prostitute go into a courtroom, and the judge says, Wouldn’t it be great if this was just a tasteless joke? We could all have a laugh and get on with our business.

But it’s no joke. The three sex-worker advocates really are in an Ontario Supreme court this week, arguing a constitutional challenge to Canada’s laws on prostitution. Their reasons aren’t funny either: sex work is a perilous, even deadly trade, and the current laws do much to increase the risk.

Women who work the streets take their lives in their hands every time they jump into a stranger’s car. Their chances of being assaulted, robbed, raped, or murdered are sky-high – a study conducted between 1990 and 1995 found that 15 per cent of all women murdered in Canada were in the sex trade.

Three provisions of the Criminal Code are at issue in the case. One prohibits “living off the avails of prostitution,” a dragnet intended for pimps, whose unfortunate by-catch could include anyone who works for a sex-worker, including drivers and bodyguards.

Another law bans “bawdy houses,” forcing sex workers onto the street, and a third forbids any negotiation between hooker and john. This last regulation keeps the traffic flowing, but gives the woman no time to assess the safety of her situation before jumping into that car.

There’s not much brain exercise involved in deciding to dump these laws. Anyone can see they’re foolish, counter-productive, and life-threatening. Prostitution will always be with us, and in any case is legal in Canada, so what could be more obvious than that it ought to be safe for everybody involved?

It’s only after the existing laws are quashed that the question becomes complex. What will the new laws look like? It’s tempting to see a simple resolution in the establishment of nice, clean, well-regulated bawdy houses across the country, kind of like a national day-care strategy for sex customers, but is it an achievable reality?

Amsterdam is famous for its red-light district, The Walls, where legalized, regulated prostitution is an entrenched part of the tourist trade. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Amsterdam is also one of the world’s top destinations for victims of sex trafficking.

Sex traffickers enslave women by a variety of methods. They buy girls from starving families. They trick young women from poor countries into believing they will be waitresses, factory workers, or even mail order brides. They control them with drugs and violence, by withholding their passports or threatening their families, or simply by keeping them impoverished, or even locked up.

The tragedy of Amsterdam is that the presence of a legalized quasi-respectable sex trade brings lots of customers to the city, and the presence of those customers creates a black market, in which the women are much more likely to be the victims of trafficking. How do we prevent this from happening in Halifax, or Montreal, or Vancouver?

A partial solution lies in the question of ownership. To whom will the brothels belong? Who will profit from the sex trade? Underworld pimps? Biker gangs? Corporations? The government? Mom and Pop?

The only way to protect women in the sex trade from the worst sort of exploitation is to ensure that no one can profit from their work but the women themselves. This shouldn’t mean that a dominatrix can’t hire a receptionist, or that a prostitute can’t have a body guard. It does mean that only sex workers should be able to own brothels, or collect the profits from sex.

Banning outside ownership or profiteering would help to eliminate the ugly business of recruitment into prostitution, whether by enslavement or by luring, but these activities need to be clearly named, identified, and prohibited, too. No matter how clean and safe our brothels are, so long as pimps are travelling to Third World countries, aboriginal communities, and decaying Prairie towns to lure vulnerable teenage girls into the sex trade, prostitution will be a national disgrace.

Women in the sex trade need protection from violent johns. They also need to be protected from exploitive pimps, whether underworld or corporate. It would be naive to think that a worker-owned, well-regulated sex trade would make all prostitution in Canada safe, but it would be a start. And it’s high time we made that start.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.