Sex work is a hotly debated issue in Parliament except during an election. It’s no surprise that the lives and livelihoods of people who work in the sex industry or those who trade sex for goods are typically not included on the agenda during a campaign — sex work is stigmatized and typically framed in the public as a moral issue, rather than a rights issue.
While many politicians demonstrate their support for us behind closed doors, we have reached a political stalemate in Canada where support for sex workers’ rights is considered political suicide. As a result, politicians do not know what to say to the public about what people who work in the sex industry actually need.
On the one hand, they say we are victims who need saving. On the other hand, they say we need to be hidden. They pay lip service to what they think protection for sex workers entails. Most of the time what we really need is what many of our allied outcast communities are fighting for: respect and protection of our fundamental rights.
In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the harms perpetrated against sex workers due to the criminal laws that target sex work. In R. v. Bedford, the court declared three of Canada’s prostitution laws unconstitutional. The Conservative government introduced new sex work laws (Bill C-36) almost identical to said unconstitutional laws, not only in printed word, but also in spirit. The new laws disregarded 25,000 pages of evidence submitted in Bedford that demonstrated the harms of criminalization.
The new legal regime, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, not only fails to address the harms identified by Canada’s highest court but also fails to protect sex workers. Instead it supports the exclusion of sex workers from communities, and maintains the industry in isolated areas, increasing the potential for exploitation and violence.
Since the new laws criminalizing the sex industry have been implemented, sex workers have reported ongoing police harassment in outdoor spaces; police surveillance of escort websites and in-call work spaces; and an increase in stress, fear and anxiety about police presence. Those who have the least access to protections and are in the most antagonistic relationship with law enforcement are the most targeted by these laws: sex workers on the street and in-call sex workers who do not have Canadian citizenship.
Not surprisingly, in these contexts, sex workers are reluctant to report violent incidents to law enforcement or to seek out help to improve working conditions. As long as specific laws that criminalize the sex industry exist, it will be impossible to effectively improve working conditions and secure the rights and safety of sex workers.
These laws prevent sex workers from naming exploitation and labour abuse in the workplace and negotiating with third parties who are considered exploiters by law; these laws negate experiences of violence because they consider all sex work to be violent; and these laws exclude sex work from being recognized as labour, prohibiting access to occupational health and safety regulations and protections.
Rights before ideology
So often politicians pronounce empty banner statements that do not address the real needs of sex workers. They are often stuck in simplistic moral debates, void of evidence, around whether sex work is “right” or “wrong.” The truth is that some of us love our work and some of us hate our work. Like other people in other jobs, most of us just do our work because we need an income.
We are not seeking an endorsement of sex work. We are seeking the appropriate use of power in government that will work to respect and protect sex workers’ fundamental rights as enshrined in the Charter and emphasized in Bedford, including rights to equality, autonomy, life, liberty and security of person.
Fight poverty and inequality, not sex workers. If politicians want to improve the well-being or quality of life for sex workers, they need to focus on the structural factors that cause poverty and violence, that contribute to the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women, that maintain the scarcity of beds available to those of us seeking detox and that contribute to so many of us living in or being at risk of homelessness. They need to do this now, not in three months.
Criminal laws provide no order. We need politicians to publicly recognize that law and order approaches to “protect” sex workers are not effective. They, in fact, put sex workers’ lives and work in danger, and maintain antagonistic relationships between sex workers and the police.
Decriminalization saves lives. Elected officials need to commit to a thorough review of sex work laws, to include the experience-based knowledge of sex workers in this review and to repeal criminal offences specific to sex work — including those against clients, third parties and sex workers. This would mean supporting a total decriminalization model similar to that of New Zealand. Research has clearly demonstrated that this approach increases the safety, security and health of sex workers, as well as safeguards sex workers’ human rights.
There is no such thing as “partial decriminalization.” All forms of criminalization against clients and third parties directly impact and harm sex workers. Specific laws against sex work are not needed; there are adequate general Criminal Code provisions to criminalize and prohibit coercion and exploitation that should be available to sex workers, including the prohibition of kidnapping and forcible confinement (CC s. 279), organized crime (CC s. 467.11- 467.13), physical assault (CC s. 265, 267, 268); sexual assault (sections 271, 272, 273), intimidation (CC s. 423), extortion (CC s. 346), theft (CC s. 322) and harassment (CC s. 264).
Talk to us! People who work in the sex industry need to be central to and meaningfully invited to participate in policy and the creation of laws that impact our lives and work. We have very few venues to transmit our communities’ needs to the ears, pens and papers of people who write and enforce laws against our communities and against us. There are organizations and individuals working in the sex industry in every province who can inform policy and decision-making. Those who currently work in the sex industry are best placed to describe what people in the industry need. Sex workers are valued members of our communities.
We need real inclusion. Not all of us can vote in the upcoming election. Many of us are living in poverty, without a fixed address or without documented identification. A responsible government respecting Charter values will ensure that marginalized communities, like people who work in the sex industry, have a central voice in policy that impacts them and ensure that we can vote in elections.
The New Democratic Party, the Green Party and the Liberal Party all opposed Bill C-36 as it moved through Parliament. We hope that the new government will move beyond paying lip service to the unconstitutionality of current sex work laws and come out from behind their closed doors to publicly support a legal model that actually protects sex workers. People who work in the sex industry know what that is, and we are waiting to guide you.
The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform is an alliance of sex worker rights and allied groups and individuals across the country who work together to fight for sex work law reform, sex workers’ rights and community well-being.
Action Santé Travesties et Transexuel(le)s du Québec (ASTTeQ), Montréal; BC Coalition of Experiential Communities, Vancouver; Big Susie’s, Hamilton; Butterfly, Toronto; Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Toronto; FIRST, Vancouver; Maggie’s, Toronto; PACE Society, Vancouver; PEERS, Victoria; Pivot Legal Society, Vancouver; Projet Lune, Québec; Prostitutes Involved Empowered Cogent Edmonton (PIECE), Edmonton; Prostitutes of Ottawa Gatineau Work, Educate, Resist (POWER), Ottawa; Providing Alternatives, Counselling and Education (PACE) Society, Vancouver; Rézo, projet travailleurs du sexe, Montréal; Safe Harbour Outreach Project (S.H.O.P.), St John’s; Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), Toronto; Sex Work Advisory Network of Sudbury (SWANS), Sudbury; Sex Workers of South Western Ontario, London; Stella, l’amie de Maimie, Montréal; Stepping Stone, Halifax; Stop the Arrests! Sault Ste. Marie; Strut! Toronto; Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network (SWAN), Vancouver; West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals (WCCSIP), Vancouver; Winnipeg Working Group, Winnipeg.