Advocates: Gov’t Leaves Sex Workers Out of the Discussion on Bill C-36

  • From left: Anna-Aude Caouette, Robyn Maynard, Frank Suerich-Gulick, Claude Poisson, Chantal Monmorency and Viviane Namaste. Photo Shaun Michaud

When the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s prostitution laws in December, sex workers’ rights advocates had reason to celebrate.

But now, they say not only did the government write a new law as harmful as the ones it’s meant to replace, but it’s also forgotten about several groups of people it should be protecting.

The five groups decried the federal government’s lack of consultation with them in drafting the bill at a press conference Friday morning at the Parthenais Street office of Stella, a Montreal organization “by and for sex workers.”

“We were invited to testify, but never consulted—and yet, we represent thousands of sex workers and fight sexual violence every day,” said Anna-Aude Caouette, Stella’s coordinator.

She will represent Stella at the hearings on Sept. 11 in Ottawa.

The bill, C-36, was introduced by the Conservative government in June to replace a set of sex work laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court in December.

It would punish those who buy sexual services and would prohibit the use of public space to advertise sex workers’ services unless they advertise it themselves.

Justice minister Peter MacKay said the bill’s goal would be to discourage sex work as a whole.

But five advocates at the conference, representing trans, male, female and drug-using sex workers, say the bill, which is currently being studied by the House of Commons justice committee, doesn’t take those groups into account.

They said it treats all sex workers as victims by confounding human trafficking and sex work.

“It’s insulting,” Caouette said, explaining that sex work is, for many, a profession like any other.

The laws that were struck down included prohibitions on “living off the avails of prostitution” and communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution.

They were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which said the laws jeopardized sex workers’ right to life, liberty and security, as outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

On Friday, the group of advocates warned Bill C-36 would do the same, or worse, if passed.

“The new bill’s preamble victimizes us and re-marginalizes sex workers by considering sex work, prostitution, as always being exploitation,” Caouette said at the conference.

“It leaves us no space to denounce acts of violence if, always, our work is considered violent.”

Targeting clients is just as bad as targeting sex workers, the advocates said. Their premise is that sex work should not be criminalized, neither for receivers, nor providers of sexual services.

“Criminalizing the purchase of sexual acts has a direct impact on the workers. In itself, saying the clients are perverts is so derogatory,” Caouette told The Link after the press conference.

“If sex workers are mothers, sisters, aunts, students or whoever they may be, I can only imagine that the same goes for clients. Maybe they are your father, your brother—who, one day, buy a sexual service. It doesn’t make them a pervert, you know,” Caouette added.

At the conference, she sat among five other advocates from different organizations, including Claude Poisson of RÉZO, a group advocating sexual health for the city’s male LGBTQ community; Chantal Montmorency of the Association Québécoise pour la promotion de la santé des personnes utilisatrices de drogues; Frank Suerich-Gulick of Action Santé Travesti(e)s et Transsexuel(le)s du Québec; Viviane Namaste, a teacher at Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute; and Robyn Maynard, also of Stella.

All of the advocates said the law would create dangerous conditions for sex workers, pushing them into alleyways and industrial sectors to escape police surveillance and to protect their clients and income.

Maynard said she sees how the previous laws on sex work, introduced in the late 1980s and struck down in December, affecte sex workers, who have been forced to work in hiding.

And hiding from authorities is isolating, she added, explaining that it’s safer for them to work in groups in order to safely negotiate and screen clients.

“So, if sex workers did ever need any help, they’d be very unlikely to go and seek any assistance,” Maynard told the small crowd of media, tucked into a small room decorated in red.

“This is especially true because too often violence against sex workers can come at the hand of police.”

The same goes for sex workers who use drugs, Montmorency of AQPSUD said, noting displacement into less frequented areas like alleyways makes it harder for them to have access to resources like clean needles and condoms.

The bill would also make it difficult for organizations to support sex workers by prosecuting those who “counsel or encourage” prostitution—a provision that could be interpreted several ways, Montmorency explained.

Namaste, of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, highlighted that the basis of feminism is to consult the group of people affected in a situation—in this case, sex workers.

“I think we need to ask a question in terms of consensual relations between adults: does the criminal law have a role to play? Do we need it there?” she told The Link.

“And, what happens if we open that door? If you criminalize consensual relations between adults when there’s an exchange of money […] will you also criminalize consensual relations between men or between women?”

Caouette said Stella would rather see a model based on the laws in New Zealand, where justice targets those who exploit sex workers—people who prompt others into sex work or dispense their earnings.

Instead of labeling the sex industry as inherently bad with increased surveillance and prohibitions, she said she’d like to see authorities ask sex workers across the country what their needs are. Then, they should deal with it according to different areas, she said.

“At Stella, we are cisgender women, we are transgender women, we are single mothers, we are students, we are nurses, we are drug users, we are alive and we want our community to be respected, and especially not criminalized.”

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