When Bill C-36 (The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act) was first proposed the Shift Line phone was ringing off the hook. And honestly, it hasn’t stopped ringing. Sex workers are confused, upset, frustrated, and in general unsure how this new law is going to affect their lives. Many of the people who call us care about following the law and avoiding criminal charges, but these laws are so vague that they just can’t figure out what they can and cannot do.
“Ok, so under this new law I am now a victim, whether I agree with that or not?” one very bold and passionate sex worker asked me one day. We spoke about how it should be up to her if she identifies as a victim of exploitation or someone who experiences freedom and choice within the sex industry, even if the government has stated otherwise. Other sex workers shared how upset they were that their clients were now potentially considered sex offenders, stating that it is really insulting to lump a man who consensually buys sexual services with them along with someone who sexually assaults children. These are not my words; they are the words of people who are most directly impacted by this new law, sex workers.
When we at Shift did a survey to ask our clients if they felt that sex workers were adequately consulted in the formation of this new law, few if any sex workers felt they had been consulted at all, let alone enough. In some ways this is not surprising. If the government views sex workers as one dimensional victims in need of protecting, this justifies a highly paternalistic view. “We know what’s best for you” is the attitude evident in Bill C-36. What an insulting thing to say to people who have carved out a way to survive and often thrive in a field that offers unparalleled advantages such as low hours, high pay, and what Benoit (2013) found was a higher amount of workplace autonomy than many white collar women experience. Sex workers know what is best for sex workers. Period.
The main thing the people who call Shift want to know is “how is this going impact my day to day work?” The frustrating thing is, we can’t really say. We can tell them our interpretation of the new law, what we think it means, but the wording is extremely vague. When new laws come into effect the only way to really see how they will be applied is to, well, see them be applied. Until we see multiple people get charged under this bill, and these charges then be interpreted by the courts, we cannot say for sure whether a sex worker’s advertising venue such as Backpage will get shut down under the new law. We cannot say for sure whether, even though it’s now technically legal to run an in-call, if it’s also legal for a landlord to evict a sex worker for running an in-call (not to mention how local bylaws would impact this situation). We also don’t know whether sex workers will be subjected to police surveillance when running an in-call.
So here we are, twiddling our thumbs, waiting to see what will happen. If this is frustrating for us at Shift, I cannot imagine what it is like for the sex workers who are working and trying to make a living serving a client base that could be criminalized at any time. Sex workers tell us that their clientele is paranoid and worried about being charged under the new laws, but no one seems to understand how it will actually look if that takes place. Research shows that when any one aspect of the sex industry (buyer or seller) is criminalized, sex workers experience higher rates of violence and lower health outcomes. Only time will tell how this law will specifically be enforced, but one thing is for sure, there are a lot of possibilities of it causing more harm than good.
Benoit, C. et al. (2014). Gender, violence and health: Contexts of vulnerabilities, resiliencies and care among people in the sex industry. Paper presented at Building on the Evidence: An International Symposium on the Sex Industry in Canada, Ottawa, Ontario 22-23 September. Canadian Institute for Health Research.