In a 2014 report written by Canadian Conservative MP Joy Smith, the ardent anti-sex work activist suggests “…prostitution dehumanizes and degrades individuals and reduces them to a commodity to be bought and sold.” Smith’s misguided statement is reflective of a larger political discussion that has emerged in Canada over the past several years, revolving around the rights of sex workers. Specifically, the argument turns on the ideological question of whether sex work is a legitimate form of labour or an indefensible kind of sexual exploitation. As policymakers attempt to discern the best course of action, little attention is given to sex workers themselves.
This debate has effectively divided politicians and Canadian citizens alike, while further marginalizing those who work in the industry. The catalyst for this debate was prefaced on the landmark Supreme Court case Canada (AG) v Bedford, 2013 SCC 72,  3 SCR 1101, in which Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin deemed that the three offending provisions of the Criminal Code that dealt directly with prostitution, including, keeping or being found in a bawdy house, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution, were in violation of Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and were an infringement on the rights of sex workers to security of the person.
Although the Canada (AG) v Bedford, 2013 case provided sex workers with hope that the political climate was finally going to change, a new bill was enacted in its place that, by almost all accounts, sucks. Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, was based on the highly controversial Nordic Model that has been widely debated by academics, politicians and sex workers. While the sale of sexual services is still technically legal under these laws, it is illegal to buy them, advertise for them, or sell them in areas that might reasonably be near someone under the age of 18 or in close proximity to a school, park or religious institution. Unsurprisingly, human rights advocates have fervently decried these laws as unsafe. By relegating sex workers to the dingy corners of society, Bill C-36 serves to make workers more vulnerable to assault, rape or exploitation while simultaneously perpetuating the prevailing stereotype of the sex worker as a pariah. As pointed out by Laura Dilley, Executive Director of PACE Society, a resource centre for sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the laws currently in place make clients more paranoid, pushing sex work into dark industrial areas where no one is around.
The underlying sentiment prevalent in Bill C-36 is clear: it is our duty as a country to ‘save’ these women who actively participate in the sex work industry. What I am still trying to understand however, is what exactly we are trying to save these women from—physical violence, misogyny, the male gaze, and exploitation? Importantly, agency is not compromised or questioned for women who are not sex workers, but experience these differing forms of cultural violence in multiple and intersecting ways every single day. Considering this, it is increasingly evident that the primary concern of lawmakers is not to ensure the safety of street-based sex workers. Instead, the rights of sex workers have become a vehicle through which lawmakers can exercise their own moral biases and preconceived notions about women who choose to be involved in this industry. It is through condemnations such as these, that the image of the sex worker as repulsive, immoral, and unclean have been conceived, and subsequently, reinforced.
Many Canadian MP’s, including the aforementioned Joy Smith, hold a strong abolitionist stance against sex work, citing trafficking and forced labour as justifiable reasons to eradicate the profession. While it’s clear that human trafficking is a huge problem, criminalizing sex work will not minimize this issue; in fact, it will likely only make it more dangerous for women by pushing sex workers into the shadows and weakening their ability to combat coercion, exploitative labour conditions and violence. Furthermore, there is a clear difference between being trafficked and working consensually. Sociologist Ronald Weitzer helps to illuminate this difference by suggesting “…prostitution involves a commercial transaction and trafficking is a process whereby a third party facilitates an individual’s involvement in sexual commerce. There is plenty of prostitution by independent operators that does not involve trafficking.” Weitzer’s sentiment is further highlighted in a report published by Amnesty International regarding the decriminalization of adult sex work. Here, there is a strong focus on the need to differentiate between trafficking and consensual sex work in order to make the profession safer. Importantly, as pointed out in the report, countries with legislature similar to Canada, where the act of selling sex is not illegal, but the act of purchasing sex is, do not discern between these two distinctive groups, and thus problematize the industry for everyone.
In Canada, the Liberal Party has given many the impression that the harmful legislation surrounding sex work will be reconsidered. Despite a lot of talk about honouring Indigenous peoples and creating policies to combat sexual assault, the Liberals have not yet said a word about reforming sex work laws. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has suggested the laws need to be revisited, but so far, no actual steps in that direction have been taken.
Beyond the obvious implications this debate has had on women, and on all genders who work within the industry, the lack of respect or agency awarded to many of these workers extends beyond the profession itself—rather, it reflects a broader inequity in which women’s rights are still deemed as being lesser within our highly patriarchal culture. This becomes especially obvious when one takes the time to consider broader social trends: women in Canada still make $0.82 for every $1 earned by a man, half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16, 57 percent of Aboriginal women have been sexually abused, every 6 days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner, one-in-five women of colour experience racism and abuse within the medical system, a whopping 83 percent of disabled women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime, 20 percent of trans folks will experience physical or sexual assault, and and each year over 40,000 arrests result from intimate partner violence. In my opinion, what unifies the above issues with the criminalization of sex work is that they all reflect the systemic inequality experienced by women in this country. The lack of immediate concern given towards such injustices acts to preserve the lower positionality of women in Canada more generally, and pushes many towards precarious or unsafe living and work situations to survive.
Notably, the differing types of overt and covert oppression experienced by women leave many with no option but sex work as a viable way to earn a living. In order to ensure the agency and safety of women is prioritized in Canada, Canadian law-makers must begin by restructuring the policies and legislation that directly compromise women’s rights and freedoms, such as Bill C-36.
Moving forward, it is important to reframe the way that we collectively think about sex work. Currently, we criminalize, dehumanize and isolate women who participate in underground economies like sex work. Social stigmatization make people understand sex work as a moral failure of the individual, rather than the workings of a larger exploitative system. It is necessary to shift this thinking and locate sex work within an overarching structural framework, where capitalism, colonialism, neoliberalism, ineffectual supports, intergenerational trauma and patriarchy are collectively considered.
Sex workers should not be forced to renounce their engagement with the profession, or embody a victim, in order to have their human rights respected. Sex worker rights are human rights.