The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform are calling for the decriminalization of sex work to protect sex workers.
The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform are calling for the decriminalization of sex work to protect sex workers. Credit: VBlock / Pixabay Credit: VBlock / Pixabay

There’s a joke floating around activist spaces in relation to doing community work during the pandemic. The punchline is more or less: “While you were learning to make bread, we’ve been organizing.”

In previous columns, I’ve written about sex workers being excluded from pandemic benefits such as CERB, what knowledge and insight Black sex workers bring to other organizing spaces, and the importance of decriminalization. In recent years, sex workers have done some amazing things, mobilizing and supporting their communities during the pandemic. They have been organizing mutual aid funds, fighting for their labour rights, and continuing to advocate for the full decriminalization of sex work.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Jenn Clamen, National Coordinator for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform. The Alliance was formed in 2012, and consists of 25 member groups, the vast majority are sex worker led organizations. Jenn has been working with Stella, a Montreal based sex worker organization which is part of the Alliance, since 2002. The Alliance is currently involved in two legally separate, but thematically linked actions. 

First, their members have been speaking before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. The aim of the Committee is to review the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), Canada’s current sex work legislation and make recommendations going forward. The review was supposed to happen back in 2019, and is only happening now. 

Second, the Alliance is also in the midst of a constitutional challenge. The heart of the matter being that PCEPA further criminalizes sex work, negatively affecting the safety of sex workers and is thus unconstitutional.

Some of you may remember the 2007 Bedford case. In this case, the sex work laws were found unconstitutional, on the basis that the laws were harming sex workers by making their work less safe due to criminalization. The federal government replaced those laws with Bill C-36, which later became PCEPA. It’s come full circle to being challenged again. I spoke to Jenn about the challenge

Natasha Darling (ND): Would you say that Parliament dropped the ball when they wrote PCEPA?  Would you say that’s fair?

Jenn Clamen (JC): It wasn’t dropped. They actually took it as an opportunity to implement something really dangerous. I still think that Bedford changes the conversation, the conversation in a very different way… Part of the challenge with what Bedford did was that it did frame sex work and harm. And so the courts were able to say, and the public was able to believe that there is harm inherent to sex work… And so we still have a lot of work to do. And that’s what got enshrined in the PCEPA… this notion of sex work as violence, and that’s not actually how sex workers experienced that, at least not in most simple terms, some sex workers experience violence at work, but they don’t necessarily experience work as violence. 

ND: What is the current aim of the reviews? And what do you hope to achieve at the hearings of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights? You, or the Alliance or sex workers more broadly?

JC: The question that’s usually asked is: “How can we make life safer for sex workers or for prostitutes?” Usually, the conversation that ends up happening is how does the public feel about sex workers and prostitution, right? Like it’s ridiculous and so you end up having like this stupid debate. A lot of people are giving their opinion. People who aren’t even using evidence but are saying a bunch of things about it. You know, like, they’ll be throwing around numbers, when people throw around a lot of statements that are unsupported. But none of that goes on, none of it gets checked… And so you had a conversation about children, about adults, human trafficking, about sex work about anything under the sun, ridiculous… They’ll write a report. And that report will have recommendations. Unless they put forward a report that actually called for the decriminalization of sex work, which we have no expectation that they’ll do, whether it’s a useless report to us, because we’re in court right now, to try and make that happen. 

ND: How do you hope the review will inform the outcomes of the constitutional challenge?

JC: You can’t inform the constitutional challenge because it’s a separate process, right like Parliament’s and courts are separate… So I hope that the committee will take care in what they produce, recognizing that there’s a group of people, quite a few people right now who are undertaking a constitutional challenge to demonstrate how their human rights are being violated… It just so happens that we went back to court, because the government wasn’t responding because we were trying, we were advocating after this law was implemented. We would visit with parliamentarians. And they just weren’t listening… And so we were like, forget it, we have to do it, we can’t just sit here, we need to do something. So we’ll go back to court. We don’t want to go to court. It’s expensive!

Jenn and I continued our conversation. We talked about how hard it is not to burn out while doing community work, and how long, stressful, and expensive it is to go against major institutions. Going to court is always a last resort. If only sex workers were listened to when they first bring up their issues to those in power. Maybe Jenn and I are both optimists; maybe it was a sunny day and the first signs of spring made us hopeful. Maybe sex workers always look for the silver lining when facing adversity. What Jenn said next struck me as particularly moving:

JC: For us at the Alliance, one of the important moments in this case, was producing a record of evidence that highlights the diversity of the sex worker community, the beauty, the resilience, the strange, like, all of the amazing documentation that come out of community and all of the fascinating research that documents sex workers’ experiences.  And I think no matter what, at the end of the day, I do think that record speaks for itself, whether or not it will win the case or not, is another story. But it is a beautiful testament that tells the stories that sex workers have, and were willing to share.

At the end of the day, activism is speaking truth to power. It’s not easy. It doesn’t feel particularly good to be pushed into drastic action, but there is power and beauty in community. Sex workers aren’t learning to bake anytime soon; we have a lot of work ahead of us. But if all goes well, and the Alliance wins their court case, I’ll bust out the baking supplies to celebrate.

If you’d like to follow the Alliance and keep up to date, their Twitter handle is @cdnswalliance. You can email them to set up a donation to go towards their legal expenses at [email protected]. The Alliance expects to appear in court in October 2022 to further pursue their constitutional challenge. 

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Natasha Darling

Natasha Darling is a pseudonym to protect the author’s true identity from the stigma and harm associated with her sex work. Darling is a stripper and community organiser based in Toronto. Plant...