In December of 2013, after years of being by turns bullied, vilified and ignored by the political establishment, Canada’s sex workers were vindicated with a landmark Supreme Court ruling that affirmed their right to engage in their trade. A year later, they were condemned again through a new law that purports to rescue them from immorality by ensnaring them in the state’s draconian social prohibitions.
The two-pronged purpose of the “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act,” also known as C-36, is to protect sex workers from victimization and also to police their industry. Workers’ advocates say that the law’s “end demand” hardline reform framework trades workers’ dignity for a false concept of public safety.
Though one stated aim of the law, which went into effect in early December, is “Protecting those who sell their sexual services from exploitation,” Robyn Maynard, an activist with the Montreal-based sex workers’ group Stella tells The Nation that C-36 “is just rendering working conditions more difficult and more dangerous, trying to get people to leave the trade by making it so dangerous. But it’s certainly not about protection.”
While stopping short of directly outlawing commercial sex, C-36 bans the purchase of sex. A buyer may be penalized with fines of $500 or more, and up to five years of jail time. The goal of reducing “demand” for sexual services is sometimes presented as a relatively “humane” alternative approach to banning prostitution (and has inspired some policy experiments in the United States as well). According to the advocacy group Pivot Legal Society, however, “Targeting clients will displace sex workers to isolated areas where prospective customers are less likely to be detected by police. Sex workers will have little or no opportunity to screen their clients or negotiate the terms of the transaction, as there will be pressure from clients to proceed as quickly as possible.”
Meanwhile, the law’s restrictions on “communications” related to the sale of sex, including online and print advertising, according to Pivot, “will significantly limit sex workers’ ability to work safely indoors.” This could especially affect older workers who tend to advertise in traditional print outlets, rather than more freewheeling online spaces.
Since many are now unable to place ads in publications and thus have fewer avenues for arranging work, Maynard says, workers are being pushed into riskier situations: “The economic deprivation that resulted immediately after the law was passed was something that we felt very strongly at Stella, because people who had been putting their ads in papers for sometimes decades [were] calling in…all of a sudden having no access to safe working, and talking about maybe working on the streets.”
The streets are more hostile to sex work now as well, since the law bans sex workers from areas where children could “reasonably” be expected to be present, such as a “playground or daycare centre.” This effectively walls off swaths of public space to avoid “exposing” kids to sex workers’ presence.
Despite narrowly tolerating the nominal “right” to sell sex as an individual, the law broadly restricts sex workers from collaborating in a business arrangement or working collectively, potentially destabilizing them further and weakening their control over their working conditions.
Pivot Legal says the law could cut off workers’ access to security personnel or support staff, who might also be criminalized, and could “capture many safety-enhancing relationships with third parties (such as managers, drivers, and booking agents).”
The workers most vulnerable to aggressive policing are the most marginalized, often poor, transgender, migrants, or people of color—people whose backgrounds make them socially invisible and who now face banishment from public space. In a letter of protest to Canada’s Minister of Justice, Pivot cited a climate of criminalization and stigma that has historically fostered “an epidemic of violence against sex workers in [British Columbia] communities.”
A recent report on the victimization of indigenous women in Canada, submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, detailed a string of murders of women, including sex workers, in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side during the 1990s. Risks of attack were reportedly exacerbated by police indifference.
Family members coming from small communities have described dismissive attitudes from police officers working on their cases…. many families of missing and murdered indigenous women complained that police officers did not take their reports seriously and frequently stereotyped the women as transient.
The investigators noted that “women, particularly sex workers, indicated that they don’t feel safe reporting assaults to the authorities.” The Vancouver police have since enacted reforms to ensure more respectful and sensitive treatment of sex workers. Recently, the Vancouver city government criticized C-36, stating that it “undermines the health and safety of sex workers,” and that the city would apply discretion in enforcing the law, in part to conserve resources for more serious cases—such as actual assaults or coercion of sex workers.
While sex-worker activists are heartened by local authorities’ resistance to C-36, activists are pushing for a formal legal review. For now, Monica Valiquette, a sex-worker advocate with PIECE Edmonton, says via e-mail, “we shudder at the thought that there will be some sex workers who will suffer and perhaps even pay with their lives while the slow machine that is our court system grinds through the process of striking this law.”
And naturally, the other side of discretion is the potential for abuse of power. “It is good news to hear that they’re not going to be applying C-36 in its entirety…but sex workers weren’t asking just for the police to have the discretion to apply the law as they wanted,” Maynard says. “What sex-worker organizations like Stella were asking for was for these laws not to be written.”
Sex work is a unique form of precarious labor, constantly demanded, but always invisible, and often culturally despised. The laws that criminalize sex workers demarcate the line between “their world”—of liminality and “transience”—and “ours”—of safe streets and warm homes. The government’s focus on policing that line limits workers’ power—the power they need to push beyond those boundaries, and secure their own economic and civic freedom.