It’s a sunny Saturday, and in a park in the heart of downtown Montreal, music blares, punctuated by the occasional peal of laughter. Children play, and as camera crews look on, a colourful crowd dances.
Carefree as they might appear, the message they are sending is dead serious. Their subversive celebration is meant to decry a dangerous, even deadly, new bill infringing on the human and labour rights of sex workers.
The second National Day of Action in Solidarity With Sex Workers, held across Canada on June 14, brought sex workers and their allies together to protest the Conservative government’s Bill C-36. In Montreal, it took the form of a dance-a-thon.
To the despair, but not surprise, of many academics, activists, allies and sex workers, Bill C-36 proposes a criminalization of sex work that is as wide-ranging as it is vaguely worded. It seeks to criminalize sex workers’ clients at the expense of sex worker safety, to criminalize communication in public (where a minor could reasonably be expected to be present) rather than institute reasonable reforms and to criminalize online advertisements instead of creating a safe workplace for sex workers.
The bill includes these measures not because it will make sex work disappear, improve working conditions, reduce harm or encourage exiting; sex workers know first-hand that criminalization of any kind cannot make good on those claims.
Bill C-36, introduced by Justice Minister Peter MacKay, follows last December’s Supreme Court decision to strike down laws that criminalized various aspects of sex work. The Court’s decision in the Bedford case was based on the rights of sex workers to security of the person, as defined by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Criminalization endangers sex workers
“We think that the Harper government purposefully created broader rules that were ridiculous,” says Anita, an outreach worker with Stella, a Montreal advocacy group run by and for sex workers. “The communication clauses, for example. We think they were expecting the proposed bill to be whittled down to just criminalizing clients, which still harms sex workers.”
“As far as criminalizing clients goes, sex workers will protect their clients, because that’s their revenue. So if a client won’t ask for services in an open area, that is then going to drive people into the darkness.” Anita notes that one safety precaution that sex workers use online is a referral system – new clients must have a good referral from another sex worker. “Now clients can’t give that information, because that would be admitting to a crime.”
“With communication in public, [the definition of] a minor being in that space is extremely broad, and means almost all public spaces, except for bars or liquor stores. Sex workers are literally going to have to work in industrial areas, parking lots, or near train tracks, and even there, it’s not guaranteed. It’s up to the individual police officer at that point to define [the law], and that depends on his mood. And that’s terrifying.”
“We’re not talking about the New Zealand model enough. New Zealand has full decriminalization, so sex workers have access to legal protections as workers, and the gap between them and police is smaller. It is safer to file police complaints, and they can also access labour boards if there is discrimination in a workplace. If someone gets hurt at work, they can access insurance. What we hear from sex worker organizations is that violence has decreased and safety regulations have been set up, so condoms are mandatory for clients. This is what sex workers want to see in Canada.”
Anita worries about an increasing “gap between sex workers and police, which was already there.”
“If you are looking for aggressors, for people who exploit sex workers, you need sex workers to file complaints. Sex workers now don’t collaborate with the police for fear of being criminalized.”
Because sex workers have to organize among themselves for safety, Stella has consistently collected information from workers over the past fifteen years and compiled bad-date lists. Every time criminalization of any kind is attempted, sharp spikes in reported violence follow.
“Every part of the proposed bill creates danger,” says Anita.
Indigenous, racialized and trans people at greater risk
The bill “ignores other demographics of sex work," according to Anita. "Trans women can’t get straight jobs because of social discrimination so they do sex work. They are very vulnerable [to violence] on the street already. The police harass them already."
Nora Butler Burke, former coordinator at ASTT(e)Q, a Montreal advocacy and harm reduction organization with a focus on trans people, shares Anita’s concern for the disproportionate number of trans people involved in sex work.
“Trans people’s lives are very much regulated by the identity documents we have. It can result in a lot of barriers to accessing other forms of employment. It’s really important … for people who are interested in trans issues to know that the fight for decriminalization of sex work and for sex workers’ rights should go hand in hand with any movement or work being done to address the needs of trans people.”
“Some of the worst violence, and most visible forms of violence, is against trans women in the sex trade and also largely against women who are poor, who are Indigenous or racialized. And because trans women are more likely to be working in visible places, on the streets or in bars, being able to access and screen clients is incredibly important – having control over whom one’s clients are, rather than having to make a quick transaction or a quick decision to hop into somebody’s car. [This bill] means that there will be continued targeting of trans women, among others.”
Stigma and self-fulfilling prophecy
Despite the government’s magical thinking, new and feasible jobs are not created every time a sex worker is forced out of the trade due to increasingly frightening conditions. No community has ever benefited from having its sex workers’ lives endangered, and giving police carte-blanche discretion rather than specialized sensitivity training can only further the rift between sex workers and the people they could be working with to stop violent predators.
The tabled bill is a blatant attempt to bully sex workers out of their jobs, using criminalization and the dangers that follow as weapons of coercion. Built on a foundation of stigma, it can only create a staggeringly self-fulfilling prophecy: by framing sex workers as victims, we push them into increasingly shady situations and increase the likelihood that they become victimized.
Anita concludes: “The NDP and Liberals are asking that the bill go straight to the Supreme Court to see if they deem it unconstitutional. Maybe if the Canadian population demands it of their government, that might happen. That could save taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars because sex workers, if this bill is passed, will challenge [it].”