Sex work

House of Commons is no place for the morality squad

Photo: rodmaia

While many were sorrowfully commemorating the 25th anniversary of the shooting of 14 women at École Polytechnique this past Dec. 6, controversial anti-prostitution Bill C-36, now the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, quietly came into effect.

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The new legislation, which makes it even harder for sex workers to protect themselves, came into full force on a day that has been designated as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

Similar in moralizing tone to the recently introduced Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Bill, C-36 has been widely criticized by sex workers’ advocacy groups for putting them and others in danger. Harper’s Conservative government seems to excel at enacting legislation that sounds like it’s taking a firm stance on something, while actually doing nothing.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay, who is is deluded enough to believe that he can eradicate the world’s oldest profession, has stated in no uncertain terms that the goal of the bill is to reduce and eventually abolish prostitution. It’s supremely irresponsible to focus on wishful thinking instead of concrete ways to protect sex workers in today’s reality.

As it stands, the law now criminalizes the purchase of sex but not the act of selling it. It’s meant to discourage and criminalize those who advertise for or request sex, by targeting johns and the pimps who sell and profit from prostitution, rather than the prostitutes themselves. It also makes it illegal to sell sexual services in public spaces where those under the age of 18 could be present. Offenders could face a maximum of five years in prison.

So while MacKay says the bill does not target prostitutes, they could face prosecution.

The legislation pushes prostitution further underground, as it makes street workers (the most vulnerable of all sex workers) even more unsafe, forcing them to conduct their negotiations and risk assessment as quickly as possible in dimly lit alleyways and out-of-the-way areas, as far away from the public as possible in order to avoid police attention. This will inevitably put them at much greater risk of violence and allow other Robert Picktons’ free reign.

Does anyone else see the contradictions in this hypocritical and moralizing legislation, or are we too blinded by Harper’s attempt to sweep the conversation about sex work under the rug, and a profession that is older than time into back alleys?

There is no question that some sex workers have been coerced and exploited in the sex trade. Sex trafficking is a serious issue, and child prostitution should be punished as severely as possible. But for those sex workers who engage in it freely and of their own volition, this legislation does nothing but punish them.

At the end of the day, these are ideologically driven laws that play to Harper’s moralizing religious base. Despite repeated requests, no sex workers were involved in the decision-making process, which makes it apparent that the government was only interested in preserving its “tough-on-crime” image through a “save-the-prostitutes” facade.

The list of allies opposed to the new law is long, including more than 100 national advocacy groups, unions and elected officials. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has publicly stated that she is wary that the new laws won’t make the work environment any safer for sex workers.

I recognize the ideological disagreement between those who want to see prostitution eliminated, because they view it either as an exploitative and unacceptable part of society, and those who advocate decriminalization, because they see sex work as a transaction between consenting adults. I understand the misgivings some people (including feminists, such as myself) may have about the notion of commodifying the body and selling it for profit, and all the implications that come with that decision, but I don’t believe that it’s any of my business to condone or approve someone else’s choices about their body.

And it’s not the government’s either. Legislation should not be enacted in order to place judgment and value on an activity, but to protect the people involved in it.

Isn’t it time that we removed the veil of morality from the sexual acts of consenting adults? Shouldn’t prostitution be legalized and regulated as it has been done in New Zealand, better protecting everyone involved? People should be able to freely choose whether they want to be a sex worker, and if they want to practice the profession, they should be able to do so safely, free of any harassment or arrest.

And if the government is so offended by its existence, shouldn’t it be dealing with the underlying reasons that lead sex workers on the street? The many precursors to prostitution, such as sexual abuse, poverty, and drug addiction, that make it the only viable option for some people? This would require much more work, introspection, and consultation than simply criminalizing everything.

Instead, we have a government that is hell bent on stigmatizing and shaming sex workers.

Legalizing sex work would not mean normalizing it or even necessarily condoning it, but simply regulating it. While we’re sitting around engaging in privileged conversations about the ramifications of such decisions, there are real people leading real lives, engaging in the risky business of selling their bodies for money on the street, and regardless of how they reached the decision to do this, they are entitled to protection.

At the end of the day, this isn’t about what makes us comfortable, but about setting in place laws that actually protect people.

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