Sex work

Extortion, Harper style

Conservative government is toying with the lives of sex workers
Photo: Number 10
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As a companion to the offensive Bill C-36, Conservative legislation that criminalize sex work tabled earlier this year and passed by the House last night a sum of money was offered by the Conservatives for sex work exit programs: $20 million over the course of five years. To some Canadians, this might seem like the government putting its money where its mouth is and satisfying its promises to protect women working in the sex trade, especially those most vulnerable. Money talks, right?

It sure does. Interestingly, $20 million is precisely what the Harper government has spent in two years on “media monitoring” — an activity as shady as it sounds. Meanwhile the government continues to reject calls for a federal inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Youth employment services across the country, such as Pathway Project in BC, have closed due to funding cuts. But the new budget did manage to set aside $8 million to fund measures requiring charities to answer more tax-form questions on their political activities in another mode of monitoring that Canadians don’t need.

The figures spoke even louder when funding for the National Aboriginal Health Organization was cut altogether in 2012. Job cuts have affected women disproportionately, and federal funding to provincial programs that aid unemployment has been “reinvested” by the millions. Newfoundland lost $14 million alone last year, while federal funding cuts have led BC employment organizations to close their doors in order to be streamlined into more austere reincarnations offering fewer services. Ontario lost $74.5 million in funding for immigrant settlement in the last two years, though Ottawa has the greatest population of refugees in Canada. The end of some health care benefits for refugees resulted in savings for the government of $24 million. Aboriginal Affairs lost $165 million and many vital Aboriginal initiatives lost 40 to 100 per cent of their funding. Women’s health was targeted in the budget cuts as well, and community-based health initiatives offering HIV prevention are being forced to scale back their hours. Organizations working for trans* and queer people are experiencing cutbacks and indifference. Women's shelters are closing their doors due to a desperate lack of resources.

Clearly vulnerable women are indeed on the top our government’s list of priorities — when it’s time to slash funding.

Clearly vulnerable women are indeed on the top our government’s list of priorities — when it’s time to slash funding. Agencies that help people who use drugs, the underemployed, youth, young and single mothers, women escaping abusive partners, immigrants, trans* and queer people, and Aboriginal peoples have all felt the brunt of austerity measures, as millions upon millions of dollars have been siphoned out of these important services. The government has stolen millions from the very women they claim to care about in the context of sex work, and now is graciously offering to turn around and return a pittance, but only if certain women cooperate and get out of the sex trade.

Let’s not forget the intention behind the (laughable) sum allocated specifically for women who want to exit the sex trade. Exit program funding is important for the women who are both willing and able to exit the sex trade. But for everyone else? Those who stay in the trade will have to rely on themselves as they navigate the threats of systemic state, police and predator violence, all with the added burdens of client criminalization and anti-communication laws. So business as usual. And what about revenue generated from the new crime of purchasing sexual services? The criminalization of clients endangers the lives, safety and health of sex workers, and yet we can safely assume that the proposed $500 to $2000 fines charged to a sex worker’s clients will not be funnelled back into sex worker-run initiatives that fight for better working conditions and quality of life. With their options and resources systematically sapped, sex workers will, as always, pay a steep price for their security, while the money from criminalized clients will flow in one direction: into government coffers.

If clients are criminalized, they may spend up to 18 months in jail. This is costly to taxpayers, takes clients out of the workforce, and leaves them with a criminal record, thus hampering their attempts to regain employment. But Bill C-36 is not just about criminalizing sex workers’ clients. Communication laws are the most commonly used to arrest sex workers and their clients, and the proposed communication laws in this bill specifically target sex workers. The government doesn’t want to help sex workers. It wants them to disappear from sight.

The government doesn’t want to help sex workers. It wants them to disappear from sight.

Housing shortages and poverty are on the rise, and this government is whittling away at the options available to already disadvantaged people. In a textbook example of magical thinking, this government hopes to “eliminate the problem” of the sex trade, presumably through sheer force of will and endless moralizing.

This is a trap that keeps women in poverty and threatens the already precarious conditions of that poverty by worsening the stigma and associated dangers of sex work. Funding is being dangled in front of sex workers, so long as they’re not sex workers anymore. This isn’t just an issue of a paltry sum. It’s also extortion.

It is dangerous and irresponsible to become comfortable with the so-called help offered by this colonial country’s Conservative government, especially to people of colour, queers, trans* people, immigrants, drug users, Aboriginal peoples, sex workers and women.

These people have always looked to themselves, each other and their allies for support and solutions, so that their lives are not governed by a deceptive and reckless ruling class. Let’s not pretend it’s ever been any other way. The Harper government can shove the $20 million.

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