Sex workers speak out

What’s happened since the Conservatives’ new sex work laws?

Sex workers share stories of life under anti-prostitution legislation
Photo: Sally T. Buck

In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the Bedford case that the three major criminal code provisions — which criminalized sex workers, clients and third parties in the sex industry — contravened sex workers’ rights to liberty and security under the Charter. The court struck down these laws, but one year later the Harper government passed new laws that essentially recriminalized all aspects of the sex industry and even introduced new criminal offences.

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The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act defines all commercial sex work as exploitation, framing all sex workers as victims and all clients as perpetrators. A primary objective of the legislation is to eradicate prostitution. Advocates for the new regime claim that deterring clients helps remove sex workers from prostitution and that the new laws do not criminalize sex workers themselves.

The anti-prostitution laws The new laws criminalize those who purchase sex (clients), those who communicate in a public place in order to sell sex (sex workers or third parties), those who carry an advertisement for sexual services (e.g., newspaper, website), and those who gain material benefit from sex work (e.g., security, drivers, receptionists, agency owners). Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has yet to address the unconstitutional nature of the new laws.

But the new laws still include provisions that directly criminalize sex workers.

Because clients are criminalized in both indoor and outdoor settings, every location where sex work happens is a target for law enforcement. This ignores the evidence in the Bedford case that highlighted how working in an indoor environment can be safer than working in outdoor settings. The new advertising provision has also impacted sex workers, despite the “immunity” given to sex workers advertising their own services. Sex workers cannot hire webmasters and third parties to help with their advertising, and most importantly, sex workers cannot openly communicate about or advertise their services — which evidence in Bedford clearly demonstrated to be a hazard to their rights.

The police arsenal

Sex workers across the country are reporting that the new laws have interfered with the safety mechanisms they use to stay safe on the job, encouraged less responsibility on the part of third parties to ensure good working conditions, reinforced antagonistic relationships with the police, and increased stigma and discrimination against sex workers and their clients. The new laws have added yet another tool to the police arsenal regularly used to target and antagonize racialized and Indigenous communities under claims of saving them from exploitation.

The harmful impacts of criminalization of sex work go beyond the violence of arrest and incarceration. Police repression is a significant factor in creating vulnerability to violence and poor working conditions. A context of repression makes it difficult to report human rights violations and other crimes and investigate acts of violence, of which sex workers are targets in a context of impunity. Both the legal and social constructions of sex work as exploitation contribute to a climate of fear and disdain for sex workers that promotes violence and discrimination.

Struggle for rights

The removal of criminal laws that sanction sex work is a vital step in protecting sex workers’ human rights. Canadian sex worker rights movements have called for the decriminalization of sex work for more than 40 years. Decriminalization is part of our larger struggle for the recognition and actualization of sex workers’ rights, including the right to autonomy, equality, self-determination and dignity.

Many Canadian laws contribute to and reinforce inequality, disadvantage and discrimination based on class, race, gender, citizenship status, mobility, mental health and other ways that people are situated. Decriminalization alone cannot overcome all of the injustices that many of us face, but it is a necessary step to respecting, protecting and fulfilling sex workers’ rights.

The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform invited sex workers to talk about about the impacts of the new laws. Here are their stories.

The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform is composed of 28 sex worker rights and allied groups across Canada based in 17 cities. We are a diverse group of sex workers from all sectors of the sex industry, both indoor and outdoor, working together to repeal criminal laws around sex work and expose the dangers of working in a criminalized industry.

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