OUR prostitution LAWS

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Reconsidering Canada’s prostitution laws: An opportunity to do so much better

We have until March 17 to give the federal government our opinion on laws around sex work, as the 3 major laws affecting adult, consenting sex workers were struck down in December as unconstitutional. 

Here are my answers, and I urge you to submit your own responses here,

Please don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t know enough to respond. Just imagine that it’s your sister, your mom, your little brother who is working in the industry, making a free choice as an adult (because nobody’s talking about changing any laws that prevent violence, coercion, human trafficking or child exploitation – this consultation is strictly about the sale of sex between consenting adults). What would you want for them if this was their work? 

A group of sex workers and supporters have put together some guidelines for responding. I’d be happy to forward them to anyone who’s interested. The group would also love to have copies of people’s responses. But with or without guidelines, just give these questions to your head and heart to mull over and see what comes out. 

Do you think that purchasing sexual services from an adult should be a criminal offence? Should there be any exceptions? Please explain.

I support decriminalizing the purchase of sexual services from a consenting adult. I am a committed 57-year-old Canadian feminist and journalist who has come to this conclusion after many years of working with and getting to know adult sex workers, whose life experiences with Canada’s criminalized system have shown me that such laws not only do not reduce the demand for sexual services, but inadvertently make the work considerably more dangerous for the people that the law is supposedly trying to protect.

Better minds than mine could write a treatise on the nature of the human sex drive, but after so many failed efforts in so many countries over so many generations to stop sex work through criminalization, it ought to be clear that criminalization does not work as a deterrent to stop the buying of sexual services. What it does is push this work even deeper into the shadows – into the dark places where no one goes, into a stigmatized, misunderstood world that is practically custom-made to cover up the crimes of the predators who end up there in search of victims.

I have learned from my sex-work acquaintances that the majority of the people who buy sex are not horrible, sick predators looking to cause harm. But because they have to work in shadowy isolation, the conditions are perfect for predators who do hunt among the workers not for sexual services, but for vulnerable, stigmatized people to rape, beat and murder.

Were the purchase and sale of adult, consensual sexual services decriminalized, workers would finally be protected by all the systems Canada has in place to keep us safe from predators: Well-lit work areas; police support; the safety of having other people working nearby; the right to report crimes or suspicious behaviour without being judged, mistreated, ignored and shunned. Decriminalization need not mean that we condone the purchase of sex, just that Canadians accept the reality that criminal measures merely increase risk and misery for those who work in the industry. Even among those who are exploited, victimized and coerced into sex work, the criminalization of this work just adds more suffering. It fixes nothing while causing immense harm. That is bad law.

Do you think that selling sexual services by an adult should be a criminal offence? Should there be any exceptions? Please explain.

I support decriminalizing the sale of sexual services between consenting adults. In Canada we seem to want to view sex workers as both victims and criminals, putting them forward in the public eye as vulnerable, desperate people who need our help to flee the horrors of the industry (whether they want to or not), while at the same time targeting them for criminal charges should they dare to resist our need to “save” them.

Many of the same comments I made in the previous question apply to this one as well. Criminalizing the sale of sexual services increases the danger and the stigma for those who work in the industry. It pushes workers into dark places to avoid being criminally charged.They avoid calling police when they do encounter predatory clients, because police might just as easily decide to charge the worker once they arrive at the scene. It lends a strong air of “well, they deserved it” in the event that violence is committed against them, a moral attitude that dramatically affects sex workers when they seek help at the hospital, try to find housing, look for mainstream work. Society sits in severe judgment of sex workers, and I strongly believe that criminalization feeds this judgment while at the same time doingnothing to improve the situation for anybody – the sex workers, theneighbourhoods where outdoor sex takes place, the exploited children who desperately need targeted, wise services to turn their lives in a different direction.

For me, this is also an issue of workers’ rights. The sale of sex is legal in Canada. It’s the marketing, location and income from sex work that is illegal. This criminalization shuts a whole class of Canadian workers out of all the normal workplace protections. They are denied the same level of police protection (or would at least perceive it that way); they cannot access our court system for a dispute over a contract or to bring a case for sexual harassment. There are no employment standards that apply to them. Decriminalization will not fix every problem in the sexindustry, but it will at least open the door for people to pursue the same courses for legal action and seek the same level of rights protection that other Canadian workers enjoy.

If you support allowing the sale or purchase of sexual services, what limitationsshould there be, if any, on where or how this can be conducted? Please explain.

I support the creation of legal workplaces for consenting adult sex workers. These sites should be treated like any other business and regulated municipally through zoning bylaws in terms of location, and subject to the same employment standards that any Canadian workplace is subject to. For the safety of the workers, these sites should not be banished to industrial parks or “red light districts” where they are out of sight of mainstream society, but rather mixed in to commercial areas and regulated in ways that ensure low public profile. This is the way that many of Canada’s brothels operate now, in truth, as the clients of this business also prefer a low profile.

Canada’s bawdyhouse laws and related court rulings over the years have basically defined “bawdyhouse” to be any location where sex is bought and sold. They have been a failure by any definition, asthey have not curbed the sale of sex and have created a very dangerous work situation for those in the industry. The only achievement of the country’s bawdyhouse laws was to deny sex workers even the most basic protections of a typical workplace: A clean and pleasant place to work; shelter from the weather, the company of co-workers, people around you to respond in the event of something bad happening.

The issue of outdoor sex work is more complicated, as some people working outdoors are there because their profound personal problems – addictions, mental health issues, disabilities – prevent them from being able to work in an indoor venue. They also work outdoors because there are customers who want to be able to buy sex that way; curbing that desire will require an entirely different strategy than anything Canada has ever tried. The percentage of sex workers who work outdoors is small –estimates are around 10 per cent – but the outdoor stroll is definitely the“face” of sex work that people react most strongly to.

Outdoor work is definitely much more of a pressure point for a community, and is almost always where the violence happens for sex workers as municipalities try to push the “stroll” out of sight. While I sincerely hope legal, safe workplaces are coming for consenting adult sex workers, I fear pressure might increase to criminalize all outdoor work, a development that would put the most vulnerable outdoor workers at even greater risk. As Canada moves forward into what I hope will be enlightened policy around adult sex work, I think the issues of outdoor sex work should be separated out for further exploration and understanding, as my experience has been that the issues for the small minority of sex workers who work outdoors are completely different than those of the large majority who work indoors. This exploration must include study into the psychology of clients who prefer to buy from outdoor workers, because there will always be sellers if there continues to be buyers.

Do you think that it should be a criminal offence for a person to benefit economically from the prostitution of an adult?

I believe that a law that makes it a criminal offence to benefit economically from prostitution is far too broad to be effective, and has a negative impact on people who in no way are acting in a predatory manner by taking money from a sex worker. Canada does need a carefully considered law that prevents predators from forcing people into sex work in order to benefit from their earnings, but criminalizing the income of sex workers is not the way to achieve that.

While rarely used in Canada, the former law around “living off the avails” put people at risk of criminal charges just for accepting payment of any kind from a sex worker. Not only does that unfairly affect all the people a sex worker might choose to employ – a driver, for instance – but also relegates anyone who lives with or loves a sex worker to the category of  “pimp” under the law just by splitting the rent, food costs or other expenses with the sex worker. To criminalize the income from legal work is both fundamentally wrong and totally ineffective as a means of curbing the sex trade.

As noted, the law has not been used much in Canada. But its existence alone opens the door for harassment of sex workers and the people in their lives, as even a private romantic relationship is now open to police scrutiny. It is also an impossible law to administer fairly. With what is likely tens of thousands of Canadians working in the sex trade in Canada – making mortgage payments, buying groceries, paying car loans, payingfor daycare services for their children, eating at restaurants, hiringrenovation crews to redo the kitchen – the sheer volume of people benefiting economically from prostitution is enormous. And yet the impact of the law is only ever felt by those closest to the sex worker. Once more, that is bad law.

Are there any other comments you wish to offer to inform thegovernment’s response to the Bedford decision?

Please do not let the high emotion of the debatearound this issue affect your decisions when considering new laws for thebuying and selling of sex among consenting adults. So many people havesuffered, even lost their lives, because of Canada’s former laws aroundprostitution. Please do not let this become an issue of agreeing or disagreeingwith the idea of selling sexual services.

The sale of sex is not inherently violent. It is our laws that have actually created much of the risks in this work. Yes, the fight must continue to prosecute those who are violent, predatory, exploitive and coercive, and to protect underage children from exploitation. But we must stop this senseless application of law as a tool of morality – an approach that has caused great harm to many, many good people and virtually guarantees a continuation of the damaging stigma that shuts sex workers out of mainstream society.

The reality is that rightly or wrongly, thisindustry exists. I don’t know if its existence is inevitable, but I do know that 147 years of trying to stop it through criminalization has not worked – not in Canada, not in any country.  Canadahas a chance to do itself proud yet again and create a regulatory framework that is thoughtful, realistic and humane. 


Jody Paterson

A diverse award winning Canadian writer currently based in Victoria, BC. Former director of Peers Victoria, a multi-service grassroots agency that was established by, with, and for sex workers in 1995. Featured in 2009's The Brothel Project, Jody has traveled the world connecting with, supporting, and relaying sex workers' stories to the general public.
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