On Thursday, November 6, seven masked sex workers spoke at a press conference in Vancouver to give specifics on how Canada’s new prostitution law will harm them. The theme was “What a Difference a Day Makes” — because on Wednesday they were responsible working adults providing a legal service to ordinary Canadians, and on Thursday the law had transformed them into helpless victims being exploited by violent predators and perverts.
The speakers wore disguises and used false names because despite their supposed “victim” status, the new law actually brands them as criminals. Their communications, advertising, clients, and support systems have all been re-criminalized or newly criminalized under the clearly unconstitutional law, which had received Royal Assent on that very day. As one of the speakers said: “The government says they want to protect us, but it’s clear here in Bill C-36 that they do not. They view us as criminals and wish to eradicate our community.”
The misnamed “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” will accomplish neither, because the main unwritten goal of the law, bluntly stated by Injustice Minister Peter MacKay, is to “abolish prostitution.” Radical feminists against sex work were the driving force behind the new legislation, and they support the Conservative government’s crime-and-punishment agenda against adult consensual sex work. They believe that sex work is inherently violent and degrading to women, and celebrate the new crime of purchasing sex as a way to “end demand” and “rescue” all the victims. Of course, abolishing prostitution is a complete fantasy, and those deluded by it are about to sacrifice the lives of real human beings on their altar of sexual purity.
Most sex workers will continue selling sex because the majority are not exploited and are doing it by choice (even if some have few options). But the law is a recipe for violence against them. Just like under the old laws, they will be pushed into more isolated areas, forced to work alone, pressured into rushing transactions, harassed by the police, less able to access social and health services, and subjected to increased stigma and discrimination. New prohibitions on advertising will put many indoor workers onto the street, and close safe indoor work spaces. Because of the reduced ability to negotiate and advertise, workers will have difficulty screening clients and finding safe ones (as “bad dates” are less likely to be deterred by the law). To make ends meet, many sex workers may need to reduce their prices and work longer hours, while others will suffer financial hardship or lose their livelihoods altogether.
Kerry Porth, Chair of the Board of Pivot Legal Society, moderated the press conference. In her opening statement, she said: “These laws were drafted without input from sex workers. They were rushed through Parliament and the Senate. … The new laws are so confusing that no one — not even the government itself — really knows what activities will be illegal and what will be legal.”
Sex workers speak out
I had the opportunity to speak to several sex workers after the press conference. They shared their outrage and fear over the new law, and gave examples of how the new law will negatively affect them personally — and in fact, is already doing so even though the law won’t take effect until December 6. For example, on the day the law received Royal Assent, an erotic healer and sex worker in Vancouver emailed her colleagues to say: “Already today I have had three people call from their workplace unwilling to share their cell numbers. It kind of creeped me out that the change was so instantaneous.”
Jordan Doe, one of the anonymous speakers at the press conference, has been a sex worker for over two decades. She told me:
“I’m worried about my income. We’re already starting to see the impacts of the confusion among the sex buyers. They’re not sure what’s legal, what’s not, how they can be safe. They have a lot of fear about being caught. The stigma against them is worse, really, than what sex workers endure. And so as a result we’re seeing our income drying up. I haven’t paid my rent. It’s the 6th, I don’t even have one dime of rent yet. Ever since the bill was announced, we’re seeing this confusion sort of mounting. So it’s going to be bad, just like it was in Sweden. At the beginning there was no business and the workers almost starved. But then it came back slowly but surely.”
Jordan feels “betrayed” by the new law. “I think it’s despicable that they would compromise the lives and safety of actual Canadians. People, human beings with families and loved ones, for the sake of their jobs and their ideology. So, I’m angry, upset, all those things.”
Jillian Doe is a transgender woman with the Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV), a group of women sex workers from the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where serial killer Robert Pickton picked up most of his victims. Jillian and SWUAV also feel betrayed by the new legislation:
“This is supposed to be a government that protects us. This isn’t protection, it’s exposure. They’re condemning us to die, for what we choose to do for a living. Some of us don’t have a choice. But it doesn’t matter if we have a choice or not. If you’re a sex worker, with this law you’re handed a death sentence. So it’s hurting. It’ s a betrayal.”
Jillian explained how the law will “make it so much more difficult for the girls to conduct their lives and their work. The screening [means] so much — if you don’t have that time to check your client, you don’t know what you’re getting into. When you’re in the car and he’s driving away, you don’t have that time to get out once you’ve made the decision. Unless of course you want to jump from a moving vehicle.”
Jenna Doe has been a sex worker for five years and works independently out of her home. She’s “completely outraged” by the law’s passage. “Sex work is the best job I’ve ever had, and I don’t want to go back to waiting tables, quite frankly.”
Jenna’s biggest fear is loss of income. “Some of my clients have mentioned that they don’t want to continue to see sex workers in light of the new law.” She says her personal safety and screening could be compromised too, because she may need to take clients she wouldn’t normally accept. “I’ve had so much autonomy, and if I don’t like someone or don’t work well with them, I can just refuse to see them again. But now, I might not have that luxury.” The law’s advertising restrictions “will make things more complicated. I post my own ads and that’s apparently still legal, but the places where I advertise will be criminalized. … It’s hard to run a business without advertising.”
Jasmine Doe is a part-time sex worker who, in addition, runs her own business unrelated to sex work and does some work for a sex worker organization. She’s disappointed and angry with the new law, and worries about being forced to give up her clients.
“I’m angry because people like me, my friends, people I work [with], are the ones who are going to be significantly jeopardized. More so than we are now. It hurts me really badly, because there are people who aren’t able to get out of the work that they’re in. They’re not able to change easily, and this really sets them back even further.”
When asked what the biggest impact would be for her personally, Jasmine said: “Basically just not being able to go out there and advertise what I do. I like the ability to have that third party buffer between myself and my working name and my real name, and my working life and my real life. And now I can’t have that because this law has decided things for me.” Although it wouldn’t be “overly difficult” for her to phase out sex work because of her other business, she says: “I don’t really want to. I mean, I enjoy the clients I have. We’ve built a rapport, we’ve built a relationship, and that’s something I want to continue to do with them, and possibly more people.”
Dangers and uncertainties ahead
Sheri Kiselbach is a retired sex worker who now works as Violence Prevention Coordinator at PACE Society in Vancouver, an outreach service for street sex workers. She attended the press conference to support the speakers, and said she was “very angry, VERY angry” at the new law’s passage. “We’re really going 20 years backwards,” she said, recalling that when the previous laws were first struck down by Justice Himel at the Ontario Superior Court in 2010 and then by the Supreme Court in 2013, “it was a celebration. And then this.”
Kiselbach is sad about what’s going to happen to sex workers. “They’re not going to be able to have safety or seek protection, or live together, or any of that.” She fears that sex workers may be forced to participate in exiting programs that will shame and judge them, which she says would be very harmful. “And where are they going to transition to? What jobs are out there where a person can make [a living], especially if they have children at home? Are they going to be pot-washers, are they going to work at MacDonalds, are they going to be a maid, are they going to be working for $15 an hour at most? How does that make ends meet? It doesn’t.”
Kiselbach says the law doesn’t make any sense to her. She can’t even explain it to sex workers or answer their questions. “I was trying to break down the laws and make it very simple to tell people that come to my workshops. You can work indoors, but you can’t advertise? So how can you work indoors? You can sell sex but you can’t buy it?” She recalled the first time she watched some of the Parliamentary hearings in the summer:
“One MP said, ‘I don’t understand this law. How can you legally sell something, but nobody can legally buy it?’ Well there you are, in a little nutshell. And the [Conservatives] still didn’t get it. They still didn’t understand the oddity of it all.”
Despite the dangers and uncertainties that lie ahead, sex workers are more determined than ever to fight back. As Kerry Porth said in her opening statement at the press conference:
“We have a message for the Harper government: In this community, many sex workers have been disappeared. Those who have survived are here. We stand together. We stand together against your oppressive regime. We refuse to die for your ideology.”
Indeed, the sex worker movement in Canada has never been stronger. The original plaintiffs in the Bedford case have become celebrated public figures. Over 20 Canadian sex worker groups are fighting for full decriminalization, including a new national coalition called the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform. A growing number of respected international organizations have also been calling for decriminalization of sex work, including the United Nations, World Health Organization, and Human Rights Watch. An enormous amount of evidence has been compiled proving the harms of any kind of criminalization of sex work, the failure of enforcement models that target only clients such as in Sweden and even Vancouver, and the success of New Zealand’s decriminalization of sex work since 2003.
The fact that the Conservative government chose to completely ignore all this evidence when it rammed through Bill C-36 does not bode well for its eventual fate at the Supreme Court, which had asked the government to respect sex workers’ constitutional rights. Unfortunately, it will take several years to document specific evidence of the harms this new law will inflict — including more deaths — but a Charter challenge is all but certain. Sex workers will win again, this time for good.
Note: To read what all seven anonymous sex workers had to say about the dangers of the new law, a full transcript of speeches at the press conference can be found here.
Joyce Arthur is a founding member of FIRST, a national feminist sex worker advocacy organization based in Vancouver that lobbies for the decriminalization of prostitution in Canada. She works as a technical writer and pro-choice activist.
Photo: Esther Shannon