Sex work laws in Canada reek of moralism

Mother of goo

The red umbrella is the international symbol of sex workers’ rights. (Supplied photo)

The term “prostitute/prostitution” is used in Canadian law, but the preferred terminology is sex worker/sex work.

Sex work (def)

the exchange of sexual services, performances or products for material compensation

Before 2013, it was illegal in Canada to make a living from sex work. It was also illegal to communicate in any public space as a sex worker and to work in, own or even be inside a brothel.

In 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) struck down these laws for violating human rights. In 2011, Maria Nengeh Mensah and Chris Bruckert wrote in “10 reasons to fight for the decriminalization of sex work” that “(Canadian law) pushes the industry into the shadows and makes it harder to combat child exploitation, coercion, exploitative labour conditions and violence against sex workers.”

Specifically, these laws violated section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which holds the rights to the life, liberty and the security of a person. The SCC gave Stephen Harper’s Conservative government one year to adjust sex-work legislation accordingly. The government responded with the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA). This is an insidious and misleading title.

Naomi Sayers states in “The (Un)Constitutionality of PCEPA: A Necessary Discussion” that “Ultimately, PCEPA defined prostitution as inherently violent and aimed to abolish prostitution as a means of ending violence against women and girls. Parties on either side of the debate agree on ending violence against women and girls as the ultimate goal. We disagree on the process.”

The PCEPA criminalizes the act of purchasing (rather than selling) services from a sex worker, criminalizes gaining material benefit from a sale of sexual services and criminalizes advertisements and public communication for the purposes of sex work.

Sayers explains “This is what makes the PCEPA unconstitutional. The state cannot create laws that make an activity so unsafe just to deter people from engaging in the activity; it cannot create laws that make people vulnerable to the extent their safety and lives are at risk.”

The PCEPA has made headlines lately, as advocates and sex workers push to decriminalize sex work in Canada. Jenn Clamen, a coordinator for the Canadian Alliance of Sex Work Law Reform, recently told CBC that sex workers are part of the community. It’s a problem when people deny others rights “because they’re doing something that might be morally apprehensible to one person, that’s a problem.”

Sex work, trafficking and exploitation do not share the same definitions. Some people hold the moralistic belief that consensually using one’s body sexually to make money is inherently exploitative, but that other forms of physical or emotional labour are somehow not. No matter a person’s stance, moralism shouldn’t overshadow safety and autonomy.

To quote Dr. Carl Hart, “our moralism is killing us.” He states this in reference to the war on drugs (another moralistic stream of law that harms more than it helps), but it is applicable here.

The PCEPA does not do more than Canada’s earlier laws to discourage situations where exploitation and violence are clearly present, such as in trafficking. Decriminalizing sex work is a more effective means to reduce violence and promote the distinction between consensual sex work and trafficking.

Madeline Rae, a University of Winnipeg alum, is a sex educator and writer living in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. She holds a BFA in performative sculpture, a BA in psychology and is studying her masters of clinical social work at Dalhousie University.

Published in Volume 77, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 17, 2022)

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