Better Laws

01.23.148:20 AM ET

A Way Forward for Canada’s Sex Workers

A recent Supreme Court ruling that allows sex workers to do their jobs still has a long way to go.

In December, Canada’s Supreme Court struck down its laws that made engaging in sex work infeasible. Although prostitution or the selling of sex for money had been heretofore legal, several restrictions, such as barring sex workers from congregating in brothels or contacting clientele in public, often forced them to the streets and to conceal their activities, compromising their safety and ability to negotiate on their own terms. The laws also criminalized making a living off of sex work, which endangered those who assist sex workers, such as bodyguards.
These laws will remain in effect for another year until further decisions are made about how to deal with the conundrum of decriminalizing sex work—guaranteeing the rights of workers to privacy and safety, while ensuring workers remain within the profession voluntarily instead of merely consensually, a subtle but important distinction.

Reactions around the ruling have been mixed. Women’s groups that advocate the abolition of prostitution, such as the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and REAL Women of Canada, decried the result, criticizing the Supreme Court’s complicity in licensing the exploitation of women’s and girls’ bodies (though ignoring the significant male population involved in the sex industry.) In an interview with CTV News, Diane Watts of Real Women of Canada stressed that the Supreme Court must introduce “legislation to protect women from trafficking and to protect our neighborhoods, our properties and our children from being influenced into this type of business.”
Other critics worry about the potential shift in focus from worker to customer. Emer O’Toole of The Guardian has expressed concerns about  the conservative sentiments resurfacing in Canada that seek to criminalize the purchase of sex work. Focusing on the criminality of consumers has put sex workers in even more dangerous positions because of clients’ fears over getting caught, which has resulted in increased violence, unsafe sex practices, and less communication about the limits of the work. O’Toole is especially concerned with how the legalization of sex work in Germany and the Netherlands has expanded the industry and enabled higher rates of sex trafficking. She suggests that Canada follow in the footsteps of New Zealand, which legalized prostitution in 2003 yet continued to criminalize exploitation and coercion and where the government set up a healthcare system with the aid of sex workers. Since then, there has been no increase in prostitution and, while issues of stigma and violence have yet to be eradicated, there are increased feelings of empowerment.
Yet others involved in the industry, including the three female sex workers who occasioned the case—Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott—indicate an active desire to decriminalize the trade. They argued that the repeal of these laws was imperative for sex workers’ safety, using the case of the serial killer Robert Pickton who murdered 49 sex workers as one of many examples. “These restrictions on prostitution put the safety and lives of prostitutes at risk, by preventing them from implementing certain safety measures—such as hiring security guards or ‘screening’ potential clients—that could protect them from violence,” the judge wrote in the ruling. Of the repeals to take effect in a year, Lebovitch told The Huffington Post , “I am shocked and amazed that sex work and the sex work laws that affect our lives on a daily basis will within a year not cause us harm anymore.”

But the question remains: how can Canada distinguish workers who willingly wish to engage in sex work and those for whom prostitution is necessary for their everyday survival? How can it secure workers’ rights to privacy, safety, and fair wages, while also guaranteeing that workers are not exploitatively prostituted or trafficked? These answers must bring the voices and demands of sex workers to the fore of the discussion. All sex workers—women and men, people of color and transgender people—must be given a platform to represent themselves and their perspectives. The standing policies have disproportionately impacted the most marginalized of workers: immigrants, people of color, transgender and queer people, low-income or single-parent families, and, of course, women. As a result, special care must be taken to focus any decisions on minorities who engage in sex work and to diversify the voices of the workers represented before the Supreme Court.
The current laws have proven ineffective and largely unused; yet when used, they have authorized discriminatory practices against sex workers, stigmatized their professions, and shamed the viability of their work. Canada must come up with a way to seriously redress the stigmas attached to sex work, elevating workers from their second-class status. To allow for sex workers to leave the industry, these stigmas must be addressed, alternative professional tracks established, and discrimination against sex workers’ former professional histories eradicated. For the industry to become ethical in any meaningful way, it must be regulated. The Supreme Court must initiate a dialogue on how to protect the rights of sex workers to voluntarily work in the industry while simultaneously enabling workers to pull out of the industry, report violence, and have access to healthcare and justice when wronged.

The Supreme Court must also be wary of criminalizing the consumers of sex work. This model has already demonstrated that it only further forces the work underground. It must realize sex workers’ opinions of the trade are manifold; that some find the work empowering or the pay agreeable, others engage in the industry simply out of necessity or are forced to stay within it. For the latter, it must construct exit pathways with employment options. It must reroute the conversation about the moral status of sex work to the oftentimes condoned violence committed against them and the real problem of trafficking. To continue to criminalize the workers far too often punishes only the poor and vulnerable.

This piece incorrectly represented Natasha Falle's views on decriminalization. Her organization SEXTRADE101: Public Awareness & Education does not support the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision. They are a coalition of international survivor advocates who expose the sex trade industry.