Editorial: Bill C-36 Fails to Meet Sex Workers’ Needs

Graphic Madeleine Gendreau

Last December, sex workers were led to believe Canada would finally take the necessary steps toward ensuring their safety when the Supreme Court struck down the country’s prostitution laws, deeming them unconstitutional. Although sex work was technically legal, the red tape surrounding it effectively criminalized the industry.

Last year’s historic ruling was supposed to change that. It said outlawing bawdy houses, street solicitation and living off the avails of prostitution—which prohibited working out of the same apartment or hiring bodyguards and secretaries—is unconstitutional.

The proposed Bill C-36, introduced in June and meant to replace the original anti-prostitution laws, would not only keep sex workers from legally making a living off their profession, it would harm the very people it’s meant to protect.

The same reasons that sex workers were afraid to report crimes, including rape, under the old laws are far from corrected in their newer incarnation.

The criminalization of sex workers’ clients, in itself, posits sex workers as victims.

Practical implications of this blanket characterization are disastrous insofar as safety; if a sex worker were to report a rape by a client, for example, it could not be taken seriously since the law views all clients as abusers.

In addition to being dangerous for sex workers themselves, the law reinforces patriarchal visions of women as helpless, and their bodies as not theirs to oversee.

The premise of Bill C-36 is to eliminate sex work, and while not all sex workers are women, the conceptualization of female sex workers as exploited and abused is still apparent in the law-making process.

Those who would like to introduce measures to eliminate sex work confuse human trafficking with sex work. For many, sex work is a profession like any other and indiscriminately categorizing them as victims is not only dangerous but insulting.

One of the bill’s more dangerous articles makes it illegal for sex workers to operate within public spaces. This forces sex workers into dark corners, where they will be at further risk of being violated.

The bill is also vague in noting that sex workers may not operate where minors may be present—which may be used as a loophole to prosecute sex workers.

None of this is helpful to Canada’s sex workers—if there are no johns paying for sex, sex workers can’t make a living selling it.

And that’s government’s ultimate goal—completely eradicating the world’s oldest profession from the country.

As said by justice minister Peter MacKay, Bill C-36 “recognizes that the vast majority of those who sell sexual services do not do so by choice” and the government views “the vast majority of those involved in selling sexual services as victims.”

We believe the Conservatives realize they haven’t consulted the sex workers who don’t view themselves as victims and have done so on purpose.

In Montreal, the voices of thousands of sex workers went unheard in the process of the bill’s drafting.

It seems the government’s true goal is to save the victims of human trafficking. That’s certainly a cause worth fighting for.

But doing so by violating the rights of other Canadians trying to earn a living the way they have chosen to is not the way to go about it.

Our government should be forging a progressive way of handling the reality of the sex industry, in a way that ensures the safety of those working within it.

Attempting to eliminate the practice altogether is both unrealistic and harmful to those who make a living off it.