Options for Canada
Sex work is a job where a person is paid in exchange for sexual services. It can take place in the street, hotels, erotic massage businesses, at a client’s or sex worker’s home, hotel or work space. It is not the same as trafficking, which is the recruitment, transfer, harbour, and receipt of people for the purpose of exploitation (United Nations). Trafficking can happen for sex work but also occurs in domestic work, agriculture, manufacturing, construction and service industries. Not all people who are trafficked are for sex work and not all sex workers are trafficked. There are laws in Canada that address the violations of human trafficking. Why then do we continue to conflate trafficking with sex work? Because we do not listen to the voices of a broad range of workers.
Regardless of how one might feel about the morality of sex work and those involved in it and why, the world’s oldest profession persists. Many want to eliminate sex work because they see it as protecting vulnerable people and preventing their oppression. If we actually care about sex workers however, and want to protect the most vulnerable and prevent trafficking, then we need to listen to their voices about their work and what makes them safe rather than assume or speak for them. As allies, rather than try to “rescue” them, we need to ensure that their rights are respected and their voices valued in terms of safety and health.
Who Are Sex Workers?
Sex workers are men, women, trans folk, working for themselves, for and/ or with others, as well as being parents, daughters and sons, partners and siblings, community activists, neighbours and friends. The term sex work is preferred over prostitution, since it refers to their work, and all workers are more than just their jobs. Sex work is not intrinsically violent, however violence does occur. And to state that all sex work is violence negates the different kinds of violence that can occur, makes it harder for workers to come forward to law enforcement when a true violation has occurred, and takes away sex worker agency to negotiate and consent to work that they engage in.
Current Canadian Legal Framework: The Nordic Model
Canadian laws currently criminalize the client and not the worker. The theory is that if we target the clients, that sex work (and trafficking and violence) will be reduced. However, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Human Rights Watch, and the World Health Organization all oppose this option because it actually harms rather than helps those who sell sex, whether those people are working through choice, circumstance or coercion. Studies in Sweden have shown that it has not reduced the number of people who sell sex but has made it more dangerous for those who do with more violent attacks and has increased the number of middlemen (pimps) because they minimize the direct contact and thus risk for the client. It reduces sex workers’ power of negotiation by forcing it to be faster and more hidden in order to avert the eyes of law enforcement. It means that workers have less time to negotiate and assess their safety before working with a client. It tends to be the most marginalized (poor, indigenous, migrant, drug-using, trans and/or workers of colour) who are most negatively affected.
New Zealand Model
Sex work was decriminalized in New Zealand in 2003. Neither the client nor the worker are criminalized and workers have labour, health and human rights under the law. Anyone who operates a brothel needs to adhere to labour laws and health and safety guidelines that were written with input from sex workers, including the supply of safer sex supplies. A worker has the right to refuse a client for any reason without penalty by their employer. And these guidelines work: One worker took their employer to court over harassment and won. Workers can also form their own co-operatives or work for themselves. They also can leave sex work at any time and access social security immediately.
Outcomes of the New Zealand Model
Fears that the New Zealand model would increase the number of sex workers has not proven to be true. In a survey in 2007, workers felt more supported by an employer and felt like they had employment and legal rights. People no longer have to hide from the police and can seek support from them when assaulted or not paid for their services. Trafficking has not increased and The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women supports decriminalization as trafficked people have rights and can feel safer about reporting abuse. It also has had the effect of reducing the stigma of sex work which is harmful.
After two years of research across the world, Amnesty International released a controversial report in 2015 that recommended decriminalization of sex work. It results in less violence for workers, more options for people to exit the profession if desired, more protection and rights for workers, and more ability to practice consent in the work that they do. There are those (often academics) who see an exchange of money for sexual services as inherently violent, and they often have the support of some former sex workers who concur. The best option however for those who do not want to be in the industry is to provide access to housing, childcare, education, medical care, rights and abilities to report illegal activities such as trafficking and assault and to be taken seriously by law enforcement. Laws do not increase or decrease the number of people engaged in sex work. All it does is make it more or less safe for those in the industry and make it easier or harder for those most marginalized to be protected and have rights. And the Supreme Court of Canada recognized that regardless of how or why sex workers enter the profession, just like any anyone else, all are worthy of legal protection.
Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go online to goodforher.com