Trudeau’s Liberals have yet to undo Harper’s harmful sex work legislation

At recent parliamentary hearings, MPs ignored and even cut short testimonies from sex worker advocates
Photo: "Only rights can stop the wrongs." (juno mac / Flickr)
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Disrespectful and unwelcoming. These are the words used by Jenn Clamen, a sex worker advocate, to describe her experience in front of the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics. She was called at the last minute to testify as part of the committee’s investigation of Pornhub.

“It was very clear that the members were more interested in playing politics with each other than discussing the issues with us,” she says, describing how a procedural tactic cut their testimony short.

For Clamen, this is just another example of the voices of sex workers being silenced during proceedings affecting their safety and livelihood.

Last-minute summons

Clamen is the national coordinator for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, an organization made up of sex workers rights groups from across the country. She testified before the Standing Committee on April 19, along with the two other advocates.

The flagship website of Montreal-based company MindGeek, Pornhub was the focus of an explosive article published by the New York Times in December that described the platform’s hosting of videos featuring underage girls and non-consensual pornography.

Citing “the failure of Pornhub and MindGeek to take down illegal content in a timely way,” the Standing Committee passed a motion to look into “the protection of privacy and reputation on platforms such as Pornhub.”

From the first day the investigation was announced, Clamen told Ricochet, sex worker advocates wanted to make sure that the committee heard from people in the industry.

“Every demeaning and every dehumanizing thing that is said about us is heard loud and clear by every aggressor, abuser and exploiter out there.”

They didn’t hear back until receiving an email on a Friday asking them to speak on Monday morning. The last-minute nature of the summons is problematic, Clamen notes: “To be able to hear from marginalized communities you have to account for structural barriers to participation.” The need to buy a headset for an online conference, for example, can be a challenge.

After opening statements, the first person to speak was Arnold Viersen, a Conservative MP. He asked no questions and used his time to cite examples of abuse from another New York Times article.

This is “a tactic used so often against sex workers and sex worker advocates,” says Clamen. “We are systematically discredited and ignored.” Conflating issues of abuse with consensual sex work, she argues, is intentional and serves only to increase stigma and confusion.

“They view online porn as exploitative instead of an industry where you find moments of exploitation.”

Disrupted testimony

With 45 minutes still remaining, Liberal MP Brenda Shanahan tabled a motion to hear from more witnesses at a later date.

NDP MP Charlie Angus called the disruption “incredibly rude to the witnesses we have” and said MP Shanahan “shouldn’t be interrupting their opportunity to speak to our committee by throwing this wrench at us.”

Because of the rules of procedure, the motion cut short the women’s testimony.

“Sorry to the witnesses,” added MP Angus. “I’ve never seen this.”

The proposal did not pass.

“When our governments send out a message that they want to eradicate us, people take that into their own hands.”

While agreeing with the idea of including more witnesses, Clamen finds it symptomatic that it was sex worker advocates’ time that was interrupted.

“They could have proposed this motion during the testimony of the RCMP guy,” she says jokingly. “No other industry would get this treatment.”

Whenever legislation that will impact sex workers’ lives is discussed, “we have to convince people to hear sex workers, that sex workers are valid voices.”

Ricochet reached out to MP Shanahan for comment but has not received a reply.

No movement from Trudeau’s Liberals

Sandra Wesley, executive director of Stella, a Montreal organization for sex workers, also spoke on April 19 before the Standing Committee.

“I want to be very clear that this committee’s hostility toward sex workers will contribute to violence against us,” she said in her testimony, noting that rather than contributing to the discussion as experts, sex workers end up having to respond to hatred towards them.

“Every demeaning and every dehumanizing thing that is said about us is heard loud and clear by every aggressor, abuser and exploiter out there.

“We saw it recently in Atlanta, with a man who aimed to eradicate all massage parlours, all Asian massage parlours, and went and killed several women in a massage parlour. We see this time and time again. When our governments send out a message that they want to eradicate us, people take that into their own hands and find different ways of carrying out the government's mandate.”

“No other industry would get this treatment.”

Following the 2013 Supreme Court decision to strike down three of Canada’s sex work laws as unconstitutional, the Harper government adopted Bill C-36. It introduced what is often called “the Nordic model,” an attempt to eliminate sex work by criminalizing the clients.

Critics have said the Conservatives’ sex work laws were not created in accordance with the Supreme Court’s directives and replicate the harms of the old legislation, forcing sex workers further underground and creating more dangerous working conditions.

Researchers Kerry Porth, Mary Burns and Genevieve Fuji Johnson studied the attitudes of law makers towards sex workers and their advocates during government hearings on Bill C-36. They concluded in their report Shouting Into the Wind that there were “significant levels of partisanship” and “that witnesses against the bill felt disrespected and marginalized during the hearings.”

Despite voting against this bill in 2014, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party has not moved to reform the laws governing sex work in Canada since coming to power.

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