Screencap via CPAC.
Half a year after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s prostitution laws as unconstitutional for failing to protect sex workers, the Conservative government is set to pass new legislation that will probably make the problem worse.
The previous laws allowed sex work but criminalized brothels, communicating in public with clients, and “living on the avails” of prostitution—a clause targeting pimps and other third parties. The court ruled that such restrictions jeopardized the safety of sex workers by denying them the ability to work indoors, properly vet their clients, and hire drivers and bodyguards.
And so we have Bill C-36, wrapping up marathon hearings at the House of Commons justice committee this week. The proposed legislation makes it legal to sell but not to buy sex, and is broadly based on the “Nordic model” pioneered in Sweden, which many view as a compromise that respects sex workers while still recognizing prostitution as an inherently exploitative industry that harms women.
The problem, though, is that many sex workers hate the bill. In addition to targeting purchasers of sex, C-36 also bans most advertising for sexual services and working anywhere “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present.” That effectively forces prostitution into less populated, isolated parts of town where sex workers are more at risk.
Jean McDonald, executive director of the Toronto sex workers advocacy group Maggie’s, says the government’s approach is one that “sees all prostitutes as damaged, as victims, and all sex work as ‘violence against women.’”
“Social inequalities abound in all industries, but we don’t (attempt to) abolish those industries—we need to address the social inequalities at their root,” McDonald told VICE in an email this week, shortly after speaking to the justice committee.
Maggie’s is an organization comprising sex workers of all stripes, from strippers and massage workers, to porn actors, escorts, and street-based sex workers. McDonald says that in her experience, there is nothing inherently violent about prostitution, but other social ills like sexism, racism, transphobia, and poverty lead to violence against people in the industry who are marginalized and stigmatized for their work. Being treated only as victims further increases that stigma, she said.
To be fair, there have been gut-wrenching stories from former prostitutes this week in Ottawa from women who were trafficked, beaten, tortured, and raped for years before finding a way out. But from a practical standpoint, those are already crimes, and it’s unclear what Bill C-36 would do to prevent such exploitation.
In fact, by pushing street-based sex workers further to the margins, the law would probably increase the likelihood of violence and coercion. Those were the findings of a recent study in Vancouver, where police have been following a Nordic approach to prostitution for almost two years.
"The general public doesn't really understand how sex workers screen clients and how important it is,” a Toronto sex worker who goes by Andrea told VICE in a phone interview this week.
Andrea, like many sex workers, advertises her services online and does significant groundwork before anything sexual ever happens. She asks for references from other sex workers to learn if the experience was safe and whether that previous provider would see the client again. And if it’s someone’s first time, Andrea asks for a real name, work information, and a cellphone number, taking the time to meet in a public location like a coffee shop or hotel lobby, just to suss things out.
But she calls Bill C-36 “a gift to predators” because many safe clients would be scared away by the new law.
"If clients are worried about being criminalized then they're not going to give me any information,” she said. “They won't give me a reference because that's admitting to committing a crime, and they won't want to give me their real names."
The proposed law would also make her less likely to call police if anything goes wrong, she said.
“Because my indoor location is where I work, so if I suddenly reveal my working location to the police they'll be able to stake it out and find out all my clients and just arrest them,” she said. "People don't realize the way sex workers operate so it's hard for the general public to understand how these laws will affect the work."
Now in her late 20s, Andrea has been a sex worker for five years and says the stereotypes about her line of work are maddening. She says most of the time she's sitting at home in her pyjamas responding to emails, doing laundry or other mundane tasks. She enjoys her job but it’s just that: a job.
Another young woman in Toronto, who goes by Olivia, echoed that sentiment. She worked with an agency and later at massage parlours before “going indie” and doing her own advertising.
“I got started [doing sex work] after I had worked a square job which paid me slave wages. $300 was considered a good weekly salary,” Olivia wrote in an email to VICE. “Now I make that in an hour.”
She, too, was shocked by the government’s restrictive prostitution bill, especially since many people expected the Supreme Court decision to be followed by decriminalization of the sex industry. Instead, the Conservatives are hell-bent on trying to end prostitution, as Justice Minister Peter MacKay has said, even though historically that’s been a losing battle for anyone who’s attempted it.
Both women said they were not out as sex workers, although close friends and family know and are fine with it.
“I don't really want to out myself because I have a school life, I have a personal life,” Olivia said. “Otherwise I would readily have stood up before Parliament as #notyourrescueproject.”
The Supreme Court gave the federal government a year to replace the old prostitution laws, and the Conservatives have taken up that challenge with gusto. Unfortunately, they are relying on cheap moralism rather than the advice of legal experts and current sex workers, most of whom prefer decriminalization of the sex industry based on New Zealand’s example. It's also not clear the general public will agree with the government's approach. The government commissioned a public opinion poll earlier this year that cost $175,000, but the results won't be made available until the end of July, a Justice Canada spokesperson told VICE. By then, C-36 will be even closer to being the law of the land, even if most Canadians told the government they disagreed with the legislation's aims.
Jean Mcdonald of Maggie’s says the government’s urgency to pass a flawed bill is political.
“In my opinion, the Conservative government wants to push through this bill in order to secure support from their Evangelical base and their social conservative supporters prior to the next election,” she said. “They are doing this at the cost of sex workers lives and well-being. This bill will not protect sex workers, nor does it recognize their humanity.” @ID4RO