On July 21, 2014, WSIC hosted a full house of Torontonians engaged in the topic of proposed prostitution Bill C-36. We were pleased to have two highly qualified speakers leading the discussion: Sonya Barnett, co-founder of SlutWalk, www.afterbedford.com and vocal advocate for women’s rights and sexual freedoms, and Rachel, a board member Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Program.
Our speakers provided the WSIC audience with a comprehensive overview of the recently decided Bedford case, where members of the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) determined certain provisions of our Criminal Code as unconstitutional and in violation of s.7 of the Canadian Charter – right to life, liberty, and security of the person. The provisions are loosely referred to as the bawdy house provision, living off the avails of a sex worker, and communicating in a public place for engaging in prostitution. The SCC gave the government one year to address the finding, following which those criminal provisions found to be unconstitutional would no longer be of legal force and effect. The government’s response to this ruling is the recently circulated Bill C-36 – a legislative product that sex workers challenge does not represent their interests, remains unconstitutional in its content, and put together after only minimal consultation with those working in the sex industry.
Sonya and Rachel addressed the fact that sex workers have business challenges that are often no different than other people running their own business enterprise. For example, sex workers need to maintain client lists, determine who bad clients are, and manage their engagement schedule. The new Bill C-36 hampers their efforts to run an organized business as it views the enterprise of sex work as something that is morally wrong. The practical implications are that sex workers would not legally be allowed to hire office assistants, managers, receptionists, or maintain effective lists of bad clients who either don’t pay, or are violent. They will also have difficulty finding locations in which to solicit business as the proposed law does not allow for the legal buying of sex.
Our speakers discussed the differences between Canada’s proposed Bill C-36 versus the Swedish legislative model in place today and the prostitution laws passed in New Zealand in 2003. Sonya and Rachel’s view was that Canada’s Bill C-36 was more in line with the Swedish model, which attempts to eliminate prostitution as a whole. This has been, in practical terms, a failure. However, the laws passed in New Zealand have been far more successful because they have allowed sex workers a legal framework within which to do business.
During the lively discussion, members of the audience brought up different topics such as how feminists should approach sex worker (where workers are disproportionately women) and legal challenges of how to proceed to change the laws in a manner acceptable to sex workers. There were questions about how people can transition from being a sex worker to a more socially acceptable job, and if sex workers should “come out” as examples for others. There was simply not enough time to address all of our audience’s questions – a sign that those who participated at the event were very interested in learning more about this live issue. WSIC was grateful to have guest speakers who were clearly so committed to the matter and willing to share their experiences and thoughts with the public. We will continue tracking developments of this Bill and hope that any legislative outcome protects the women and men who all too often risk their lives unnecessarily for their jobs.
Due to protecting the anonymity of one of our speakers, we will not be posting a video of this talk but the transcript of Rachel’s opening remarks are below.
So I’m from Maggie’s which is Toronto’s sex workers action project and we’ve been around since 1986. Primarily we’re a harm reduction service. It’s a place that’s sex workers run by current, former and also there’s a few allies but we try to keep the board of directors mostly current and former sex workers. We’re funded primarily through the ministry of health and I’m just going to tell you a little bit of what we do there. Some of the programs that we run is something we call a work group which is a monthly meeting of current and former workers that get together and chat about work and have a meal on Maggie’s. We also run a lounge which is a weekly drop-in where current and former workers come and have a meal, get some tokens. There’s workshops that that happen at the lounge. Recently they did a website-making workshop. There’s also been workshops on eating and workshops on ***. We also run something called a no-list which is a combination of bad clients and when we say bad clients this could mean people who are not serious about booking a session and wasting time, people who short change you or people who are aggressive or violent, just anything that makes them an undesirable client. So this is a list accessed by sex workers and maintained by sex workers. Maggie’s also offers street outreach which happens in areas where outdoor sex work happens. We have a computer to use in the lounge space as well as we do occasional educational workshops such as on public speaking , one on marketing and one on how to screen clients. So Maggie’s is a pretty unique space in Toronto. We sort of did a structural organizational review and found that one of the things that came up with users that that Maggie’s is special space where former and current sex workers can come and not be judged. All sort of people come to Maggie’ s whether they be escorts, erotic massage workers, strippers, dominatrix. It’s the kind of place where it doesn’t matter where you fit in in sex work you’re welcome at Maggie’s and no one will judge you. No one will judge you if you continue with the work, if you want to leave, if you’re having mixed feelings, if you really like it. It’s the type of place that kind of place you can go and not feel judged.
I’m just going to give you a few basic points about what’s going on in Canada. C-36 is justice minister Peter McKay’s answer to the Supreme Court ruling in Canada. The ruling came down last summer and C-36 is called the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. Now the Supreme Court of Canada gave parliament one year to come up with some type of response. The Supreme Court ruling is about section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom which is security of the person. And what had happen was three sex workers had come forward to challenge this idea of unconstitutionality of this section and it was Amy Lebovitch, Terri-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott and they had been struggling and working on this in court for years and years to have these laws changed. Part of the criminal code 2-10, 2-12 and 2-13 which are the communication laws, body house laws and living off avails. So the SEC struck down all those three clauses citing that they were extremely dangerous for people in sex work. And they cited examples like the Robert Picton case, where he admitted to killing 49 sex workers and the remains of the sex workers were found in his farm and nobody knows what the final tally is and they also cited the closing of Grandma’s House in Vancouver was a safe space for sex workers to work in. With the body house laws you cannot work indoors. So they said if these laws had been changed, had been struck down then we may have saved the lives of these women. So Peter MacKay came along with his responses and the Supreme Court said you have a year to respond. If you do nothing and you have the option to do nothing these laws will essentially fall and the decriminalization of prostitution will be in effect. Or if they wanted to do something, legalize or criminalize aspects of the industry as long as it does not infringe on the constitutional rights of prostitutes. And that constitutional right for them is the security of the person. So anything that they do that endangers them you cannot present a bill that will go against that. The problem is that MacKay’s response is in the protection bill is morality though. He stated that prostitution is degrading and violent against women and all buyers of sex are hurt. The preamble itself of C-36 states that parliament recognizes the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body and commodification of sexual activity. And I just want to point out here that if you do not have the idea that I am pro sex work you will very soon. This is coming from a man who is married to a beauty queen. So if you’re going to criminalize the objectification of the human body and there’s a bit of a hypocrisy here. So it was written and backed by a Cristian groups of anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution. Well a distinction has to be made here there is a difference between trafficking and sex work. Trafficking is forced confinement and is illegal and is already covered in the criminal code. While legitimate sex work is done by choice and we will discuss what “choice” means later on. The prohibitation-esque which is the term of the sex workers we use are people who are against sex work purposely conflate trafficking and sex work to blur the lines for their clause. MacKay calls C-36 a “uniquely Canadian response to prostitution” but it’s largely based on what is called the Nordic Law which was started in Sweden and that actually doesn’t include all the Nordic countries. It doesn’t include Denmark and Finland. Now the mandate wasn’t to protect people in sex work in Sweden, the mandate is to completely eliminate prostitution altogether based on moral grounds. The problem is that in Sweden this has not worked. We read and hear about many reports and studies given by police institutions saying it’s really successful but really it wasn’t. The best people to hear about how these laws are affected are sex workers themselves and they’re the ones who says these laws don’t work. They put people in danger and it has not eliminated prostitution whatsoever. A lot of the reports you see are flawed, erroneous and often fabricated for various political reasons. In Sweden one of the mandates to create these laws was to present a model for the rest of the world. He ignore sex worker organizations has said no sex workers were consulted in the creation of these laws. And they’re going to say they’ve eliminated it and street-based work has gone down but no voice of sex workers were put into this situation.