Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights: Why the Decriminalization of Sex Work Is Needed in Canada
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Trigger warning: This article discusses rape and sexual violence against women and children.
“Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world.” But what they are not telling you is that it is also one of the most dangerous. In Canada, between 1991 and 2014, 294 sex workers were murdered, with most cases remaining unsolved and neglected by police forces until recent years. And this is obviously without mentioning the tremendous amount of abuse within the industry. It is estimated that around 45-75% of sex workers will experience a form of sexual violence while exercising their profession. Sex workers’ rights are human rights, and, as a society, it is about time we enforce it.
The debate surrounding the legalization of sex work has divided feminists for decades. Some feminists argue that sex work is, whether out of free will or not, a form of commodification of women’s bodies. Others view it, in a consensual context, as a reappropriation of a woman’s sexual agency. Nonetheless, the majority of us in Canada agree that sex workers are not adequately protected by the government. In Canada, since 2014, the implementation of Bill C-36 prohibits the purchase of sexual services, which outlaws prostitution without outrightly declaring it. Although the government aimed to protect sex workers with this new law by criminalising clients, its enactment made their lives significantly harder.
The reality is that outlawing prostitution did not eradicate it from society; it only contributed to making it that much more dangerous. By criminalising the purchase of sexual services, Canadian law also proscribes everything surrounding prostitution. This means that sex workers, under the current statute, are unable to negotiate safe working environments. This includes, but is not limited to, transportation, choice of location and schedule, as well as an adequate screening of clients. To practise their profession, sex workers are obligated to make riskier compromises. As clients fear legal consequences, sex workers are sometimes forced to accept working conditions they would not otherwise. Sex workers might agree to meet in remote locations or to exceed their limits when it comes to the time spent with the client or even the use of protection. All of these factors, generated by the criminalization of prostitution, only further isolate and neglect the safety of sex workers. Moreover, said poor working conditions, juxtaposed with the stigma surrounding prostitution, allow predators to take advantage of the lack of legal and societal support available to sex workers to sexually abuse them.
If criminalising prostitution is not the solution, then what is? Decriminalisation. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the decriminalization of sex work proves to be the best alternative when it comes to the protection of the people working in the industry. Back in 2008, this is precisely what was brought forth by sex workers Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott in the Bedford v. Canada case. Bedford v. Canada argued that the Canadian laws surrounding prostitution (the prohibition of brothels, public communication for the purpose of prostitution, and living off the avails of prostitution) were unconstitutional and infringed on sex workers’ rights to freedom of life, liberty and security. The Supreme Court of Canada did rule those laws unconstitutional, leading to the modification of legislation into the current statute in 2014. However, as we know, Bill C-36 did not prove to protect the rights of sex workers.
In present-day Canada, the act of decriminalising prostitution would entail the removal of any legal consequences surrounding the purchase of sexual services. It would also involve the enactment of a new law recognizing sex work as a valid profession in the case of consenting adults. This would allow sex workers better access to law enforcement, healthcare, and insurance, as well as permit them to screen clients and negotiate prices, location, boundaries, and duration before appointments. Consequently, this would reduce the transmission of STDs and the risk of sexual violence. Sex workers would also be able to report any abusive work practices.
While that might be perceived as a utopian, idealistic and unachievable standard, New Zealand would argue otherwise. In 2003, New Zealand became the first country to decriminalize sex work with the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA). Although decriminalization did not solve all issues surrounding sex work, significant ameliorations have been observed since then. New Zealander sex workers’ activist Catherine Healy reports an important shift in the social attitude, especially by policemen, towards sex workers. In an interview with Open Democracy in 2015, Healy states, “the focus on the sex worker wasn't on the sex worker as a criminal anymore. It was on the rights, safety, health and well-being of the sex worker.” Furthermore, a study conducted in 2007 by the University of Otago found that, since the enactment of the PRA, 90% of sex workers felt they had better access to employment, legal, health and safety rights, 64% said it was easier for them to refuse clients, and 57% said the overall attitude of police forces towards them was more positive.
Then, why not legalise it? The legalisation of prostitution enables governmental involvement in setting regulations sex workers must respect to exercise their profession. These conditions could include choices of location, fixed prices and strict police presence. These constraints might not appear to be limiting; however, in real-world applications, they lead to the infringement of sex workers’ autonomy, unlike in the case of decriminalisation. In the case of the Netherlands, the first European country to legalise prostitution in 2000, Amsterdam’s Red Light District is a prime example of that. Amsterdam’s Red Light District is an urban area with a high concentration of sex-oriented businesses highly regulated by the Dutch government. Since then, this area has proven to be increasingly discriminatory towards trans and immigrant sex workers. People belonging to those groups report suffering from over-policing and unfair treatment from government authorities. Moreover, since the legalization of sex work, the Netherlands has seen an alarming increase in sex trafficking. According to a 2008 report by Karina Schaapman, a former sex worker, of Amsterdam's 8,000 to 11,000 sex workers, 75% were foreigners. She also worked in collaboration with the police to identify 80 violent pimps, only three of whom were Dutch-born.
In reality, the legalization of sex work does not address the lingering problem of the sex trade. Legalizing sex work creates laws giving the illusion that all sex workers work out of free will, making it harder to discern a victim from a consenting adult. Criminalization pushes prostitution into the dark corners of society, producing stigma around it, which deters sex workers from reporting cases of abuse and allows for sex trafficking to thrive.
As Montrealers, we should feel concerned by this issue as our city is a hub for sex trafficking. A 2021 report by the Québec government found that, apart from Québec being the leading Canadian province in the exportation of girls and young women for sexual exploitation, Montréal was the second most important region in relation to the rate of sexual exploitation. With minors representing 36% of victims, sex trafficking should represent a pressing matter for all of us as parents, siblings, or simply as human beings.
Ultimately, whether you are for or against sex work really does not matter. The reality is that our society is inadequately equipped to protect sex workers and victims of sex trafficking. The debate around the legalisation of prostitution should be one that focuses on human rights, not on a paternalistic approach that wants to dictate one’s bodily autonomy. As of now, decriminalisation is the most effective solution.