If Canada’s Conservative government gets its way, the country could soon get slapped with a new anti-prostitution bill that—while promising to rescue sex workers from harm—might end up hurting far more than it would help.
In a landmark decision last year, the Canadian Supreme Court struck down many of the country’s major statutes against prostitution—a ruling that could have effectively decriminalized sex work. In response, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is now pushing C-36, a bill that would once again broadly criminalize the buying of sex, largely restoring a regime of anti-prostitution enforcement that the high court already deemed unconstitutional.
The bill purports to target only those who purchase sex and not the selling of sex, per se. But it threatens to indirectly criminalize many of the services, spaces and personal interactions that would make it possible for sex workers to openly do business.
Strictures against “Advertising sexual services” in the bill appear to be so broad, they might in many cases ban any collective enterprise related to sale of sexual services, from running a “bawdy house” in one's home, to using an online classifieds site.
The bill attempts to comply with the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling—which found the earlier restrictions on prostitution overly broad and punitive. The draft legislation contains a refined ban on “Communicating for the purpose of selling sexual services in public places.” The latest version limits enforcement to explicitly child-oriented places, like schools, daycare providers and playgrounds. Though “communicating” could be interpreted as just discussing the potential sale of sex.
The law stops short of completely outlawing the exchange of sex for money, but instead hopes to kill the trade by a thousand cuts, through convoluted commercial and legal barriers.
Nonetheless, advocates for decriminalization of consensual sex work say this new bill, far from eradicating the world’s oldest profession, would erode sex workers’ ability to assert their rights: they will find it harder to congregate in public, or even communicate privately. And with their client base depleted, they will suffer economically, and ultimately lose leverage to negotiate their pay and working conditions.