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Canada’s New Sex Work Laws Are Taking a Big Step Backwards

The government has tabled a new law surrounding what they call "prostitution” in Canada, and it’s worse than sex workers imagined it would be.
​Image via The Canadian Press.
Image via The Canadian Press. 

Image via WikiMedia Commons.
It’s happened. The government has tabled a new law surrounding what they call “prostitution” in Canada, and it’s worse than sex workers imagined it would be. The purchase of sexual services would be made illegal, as would communicating for the purposes of “prostitution” in a public place. The selling of sexual services would be made illegal wherever persons under the age of 18 might be present, and it would even be illegal to advertise sexual services, both in print and online. Violating those laws could land sex workers in jail for up to six months. Their clients could face up to five years, or up to $4,000 in fines. The bill treats all sex workers as “victims,” in the words of Justice Minister Peter MacKay himself.


The law, as outlined, will put the very lives of sex workers in danger. Despite the fact that most Canadians said in a poll that it shouldn’t be illegal to buy sexual services, the government is making it pretty damn hard to do so.

Sex workers have been saying since before the old laws were struck down last December that a Nordic-inspired law for Canada would be just as harmful as the old laws, but their voices have not been taken into consideration. The result is a proposed law that will be just as unconstitutional as the old ones.

For background: in December, 2013, the landmark Bedford decision was made. Three current and former sex workers—Terri Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott—challenged Canada’s “prostitution” laws. They said the laws violated their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Specifically, they challenged the fact that it is unlawful in this country to operate a “common bawdy house,” live on the avails of “prostitution,” (making it difficult to impossible for many sex workers to hire managers, drivers and security personnel), or communicate in public for the purpose of “prostitution.”


The Nordic model, on the other hand, makes it perfectly legal to sell sex (as it always, technically, has been in Canada), but illegal to buy it.

Sex workers and advocates of those in the industry are vehemently against the Nordic model—so are many academics and media organizations. Sex workers say their preference would look more similar to the New Zealand model. Naomi Sayers is a former sex worker and the creator of [Kwe Today](http://, a site dedicated to Sayers’s fierce Indigenous feminism. She outlines a method that would work much better than the one outlined by the government.

“What would help with recognizing sex work as work is the decriminalization of the trade, or what is called the New Zealand model,” she says. “When sex work is decriminalized, there is access to other rights like labour and employment rights or human rights.” In New Zealand, sex work is seen as real work. For example, a sex worker was recently awarded $25,000 in the courts after being sexually harassed by the owner of a brothel.

If clients are criminalized, on the other hand, Sayers says, they, for fear of arrest, would be highly unlikely to go to police if they noticed a sex worker was being maltreated or exploited by her employer.


Chanelle Gallant, a long-time advocate and community voice, and former spokesperson for Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, says a spin on New Zealand’s idea would be preferable too.

“[It wouldn’t be] the same, but similar to New Zealand. For example, independent workers would be able to work together without requiring a license, but business owners who owned larger operations like for example brothels or agencies, [those would] require a license,” she says.

If sex workers could create their own regulations, they would come up with solutions like these, which Gallant says would serve different needs in the industry. People could work for themselves with a few others for safety and community without requiring a license, but bosses of larger agencies or organizations would still be forced to comply with labour regulations.

The reason this preference has not been parlayed into the new laws is that there was no direct consultation with sex workers to form them. According to a statement I received from the Department of Justice: “The government sought the input of all Canadians. The online consultation was publicized through press releases and social media, and open to the general public.”

There was not a widespread, face-to-face conference with sex workers to gather their views on the subject.

“Canadians were encouraged to submit their views. We received input from many people writing on behalf of groups and organizations, including those who identified themselves as sex workers or who wrote on behalf of organizations that support the decriminalization of prostitution,” read an email I received from spokesperson Carole Saindon.


She said 131 of those who responded to a survey circulated by the government in the winter were either from sex workers, or organizations representing them. For more results, the public opinion research results will be available through the government’s library and archives public opinion research site at the end of July, “as per Treasury Board guidelines,” I’m told.

The government is actively ignoring sex workers’ voices and expertise on what would make their work the safest and most comfortable, instead allowing their safety to ride on one public opinion survey. They’re also ignoring the research.

“The government needs to begin to listen to sex workers,” Sayers says. “They are the real experts in this discussion. When we ignore the voices of sex workers, we miss the entire point of ensuring sex workers remain safe and secure in their line of work—this was the whole point of the Bedford decision.”

Gallant says there was no additional, meaningful consultation with sex workers in regards to the new legislation. She says there was a “token conversation with a handful of sex workers,” but nothing beyond that.

The result is a bill called, for now, the “protection of communities and exploited persons act.” It is so very far from what Bedford, and the majority of sex workers, wanted to see.


"We are criminalizing the purchase of sexual services and in very specific instances the sale… in areas where young people under the age of 18 could be present," Justice Minister MacKay reportedly said mduring a news conference Wednesday, after the bill was tabled in the House of Commons.

The language he uses to describe the government’s excessively paternalistic concerns does nothing more than attempt to morph sex workers into victims under the guise of wanting to protect them. MacKay said the bill would target those who purchase sexual services, as well as pimps who make profits from them, rather than targeting sex workers. Then he turned around and says this, according to the CBC:

"The bill recognizes that the vast majority of those who sell sexual services do not do so by choice. We view the vast majority of those involved in selling sexual services as victims," MacKay said.

It’s very interesting that MacKay makes this claim in light of the fact that there are absolutely no statistics available outlining how many sex workers there actually are in Canada. Also, the government doesn’t listen to sex workers, so I’m doubtful they conducted a survey. How, then, can he profess to know anything about the “majority” of this group?

Further, the bill will criminalize the advertising of sexual services in print and online, and offenders could face up to five years in prison. Or $5,000 in fines.


Five years for fucking? I think I need to find a new country.

It’ll also increase penalties relating to child prostitution, and allocate $20 million to find programs helping sex workers get out of the industry.

First, the government needs to understand that there is a massive difference between people who decide they want to be sex workers, and those who are forced into sex work via trafficking or child prostitution. As of right now, they have the language all wrong and clearly lack an understanding of the industry.

Second, $20 million to fund programs for sex workers to get out of prostitution? What if they don’t want to leave sex work? I’ve met plenty of sex workers who have great relationships with clients and, for the most part, enjoy their work. (Let’s be real, no job is perfect). This assumes all sex workers are absolutely without agency, which is wholly untrue.

Sayers says a model like this will only make sex work less safe.

“The government needs to understand that sex work isn't inherently violent, but what permits violence to occur is the criminalization of the trade," Sayers says. The research indicates that the Nordic model hasn’t helped to address violence or exploitation in the trade.” Because it pushed the industry underground, it’s actually harder for police to catch pimps and traffickers under this kind of law.


“The criminalization of clients increases exploitation of sex workers,” Sayers continues. “This is the case because sex workers are forced to sacrifice their safety with respect to clients, since clients are less likely to provide screening information in a criminalized environment.”

She explains that when sex workers can’t screen their clients, they can’t decline them. Bad date lists, for example, would be next to impossible to maintain. (Bad date lists are shared lists providing information on potential clients with a history of showing violence toward sex workers. If clients are criminalized, they may well refuse to share their information for fear of arrest.

“So the sex worker sacrifices her safety and security in the process, and [these laws] recreate the previous legal framework that the Bedford decision rendered unconstitutional,” Sayers says. “The Nordic Model recreates the communication law. It is still unconstitutional.”

As for the government’s need to ensure it is “protecting” sex workers?

“The government also needs to understand that sex work isn't inherently violent, but what permits violence to occur is the criminalization of the trade,” she says.

Gallant also says so-called labour protections installed by the government without consulting sex workers have the potential to be incredibly harmful, “because we know what we need, and have very practical concrete implementable solutions to regulate the industry."


If this bill is made law, it will have a detrimental impact on all sex workers. But indigenous sex workers, sex workers of colour, and migrant sex workers will be especially hard-hit.

“As an Indigenous woman, I can definitely say yes, these laws will have an adverse impact on Indigenous women,” Sayers tells me.

“I feel this way because as an Indigenous woman, I already don't feel safe enough to go to the police if I am a victim of a crime. For instance, as a former sex worker, I learned to never go to the police for. I was once sexually assaulted by a date not associated to my work and I went to the police. However, because of sex work, they blamed my work for what happened to me, even when I told them it wasn't related.”

She says these laws are likely to exacerbate the already high apprehension rates of Indigenous women’s children, as well. Migrant workers are targeted under the Nordic model, too, and while it’s not yet clear whether the Canadian model will follow suit, it’s important to be cognizant of that. At the same time the Nordic model was enacted, the Swedish government also instituted the so-called “Alien Act.”

“This is the act that allegedly helps combat human trafficking,” Sayers explains. But it does that by targeting sex workers at the same time.

“A migrant worker who comes to the country to engage in sex work will automatically be deported, and they will be deported even if they didn't intend to do sex work on their initial arrival, but choose to do it after they arrived.”

In short, there are too many problems with this newly-proposed model to explore in one article. But I would like to know why the government is deliberately ignoring the voices of sex workers, choosing instead to forge ahead on criminalizing an industry they clearly know nothing about. For more information and goings-on amongst advocates, follow the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform.