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New Poll Shows Canadians Don’t Like Stephen Harper’s Prostitution Bill

More than half the nation supports legalizing sex work and opposes the government's criminalization.

by Justin Ling
Jan 15 2015, 3:44pm

Pro-sex-work demonstrators in Montreal in 2013. Photo by Joel Balsam

Despite the Harper government's best efforts to convince them otherwise, Canadians still don't want the state butting into their consensual sexual transactions.

That's the results of a new Forum Research poll provided to VICE, which shows more than half of Canadians oppose the federal government's new sex work laws, while roughly the same number support legalizing the sex trade.

It also shows that five percent of the country is willing to admit they have solicited a sex worker.

The Conservatives' new laws came into effect on December 6, just shy of a year after the Supreme Court took a hatchet to Canada's old prostitution regulations, which the justices ruled were directly endangering sex workers' lives.

The new laws criminalize the purchase of sex, running a sexual business, advertising sexual services, and soliciting too near a school or playground. The bill, supposedly, allows sex workers to work as independent contractors, hire certain staff and to advertise their own services.

The Forum poll shows that only 27 percent of Canadians support that law, while 52 percent oppose it outright. Opposition to the bill is essentially uniform across age group, gender, and region.

Even among Conservative supporters asked by the polling firm, only 37 percent support the bill, while more than four in ten oppose it.

When asked if they support legalizing sex work outright, 54 percent of the country is onboard, with a third disagreeing. The poll shows that men are, perhaps unsurprisingly, more likely to support legalization: two thirds endorse the idea. Roughly half of every province supports letting sex workers go about their business without being arrested.

The findings of the poll are virtually identical to what Forum found when they asked the same questions last summer. The only difference is that, despite an aggressive campaign from the government to sell its tough-on-sex agenda to voters, fewer Canadians support the new laws.

"Sex work is said to be the oldest profession, and the majority want its professionals to be allowed to practice in peace," says Forum Research President, Dr. Lorne Bozinoff.

The poll also asked one of the most uncomfortable questions a stranger could ever ask you over the phone: "Have you, yourself, ever engaged the services of a prostitute?"

The results aren't terribly surprising. 85 percent of the respondents said no. A tenth of them refused to answer.

But 87 brave Canadians—five percent of those polled—said yes, they'd visited a woman or man of the night. Nearly 10 percent of the men asked, and two percent of the women, admitted to that fact.

Bozinoff says it's pretty reasonable to assume that the one in ten who refused to answer had probably solicited a sex worker at some point in their lives.

A few of the politicians who voted for the new laws might even be among those who admitted to exchanging money for a good time. Sex workers have warned members of the governing Conservative caucus that, if they're insisting on pushing forward these laws, their secrets might be unveiled. While sex workers have largely backed off that threat—the consensus within the sex work community is that outing johns could put sex workers' lives in danger—the allegation hangs heavy over Ottawa.

They'll now be in trouble (of their own making) if they want to visit a house of ill repute. They could face fines or even jail time.

Meanwhile, sex workers themselves still face the long arm of the law if they step outside the very narrow confines of what the law says is acceptable behaviour for those in the industry. Anyone running an escort agency or brothel, or acting as a manager to workers, could face more than a decade in prison.

VICE asked Jean McDonald, Executive Director of Toronto's sex work action project Maggie's, what's changed since the laws came into force in early December.

She says everybody is in a bit of a holding pattern as police agencies and provincial governments figure out what to do. Vancouver police, for example, have signalled that they're more interested in protecting sex workers than trying to jail them or their clients. In Ontario, Premier Kathleen Wynne is having her government review whether the laws should be enforced at all.

"We don't know right now where the police are going to go with the enforcement," McDonald says of the Toronto police.

But while McDonald says police haven't stepped up criminalization of sex workers, they haven't exactly reduced it, either. She says sex workers who deal with her group still regularly face tickets from city police—for things like loitering and public nuisance—and police are still making their presence known around Toronto's strolls, making business hard.

McDonald says business generally "seems to be slow." She says it's too early to tell whether that's because of the new laws or not.

The government's lion on the matter has been Manitoba social crusader and MP Joy Smith. The white-haired, soft-spoken, bespectacled grandmother helped write the bill, and brought along the bevy of anti-sex work activists who stumped for the bill while it was being studied by the House of Commons.

Reviled by sex workers as much as she's adored by social conservatives, Smith's opus is now part of the Criminal Code. She doesn't consider sex work to be work at all. As she once told me, "I don't use the word 'prostitution,' I use 'human trafficking.'"

With this success under her belt, Smith announced this week that she won't be seeking re-election.

"After taking time to consider my next step in the fight against modern day slavery," said Smith in her announcement, "I have decided that I can do more outside of Parliament than in it. Following the next election, I will continue to support the survivors of human trafficking by devoting my time to the Joy Smith Foundation."

That Foundation "raises awareness of human trafficking as well as provides support to victims of human trafficking in Provinces across Canada," according to its website.

That sort of foundation is likely a prime target for a slice of the $20 million in funding that will be doled out by the government in the next few years. The money is supposed to help workers exit the sex trade, fund programs that mitigate exploitation of women, girls, and marginalized groups, and to complement the new laws, according to the government.

Smith's organization might be getting that funding right now, but her organization doesn't publish full financial reports.

Canadians, generally, support that $20 million, according to the Forum poll. More than half support the cash, while about a third oppose the funding. More than 40 percent, however, feel the amount is inadequate.

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