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.