Canada has contradictory and confusing laws regulating sex work, which are unconstitutional for violating workers’ rights to health and safety. This, combined with incredibly negative social stigma against sex work as a profession, has led to a toxic environment where sex workers are criminalized and continually prevents individuals from staying safe with a set of best practices. This post will explore the legal framework around sex work in Canada, different regulatory models in other countries, the impacts of legalizing sex work, and provide an opportunity to take action to learn more about this issue.
Overcoming Discomfort Around Discussing Sex Work
Society tells us from a very young age that sex work is immoral, that most sex workers are sad, oppressed people, and that all people purchasing sexual services must be abusive or seedy. While this narrative is powerful and crafted effectively, it’s challenging to have a nuanced conversation about sex work because many impacted individuals have strong emotional reactions responses to the subject. If you’re someone who’s having a strong reaction response while you’re right now reading this post, that’s totally understandable – this is a touchy subject!
We’d like to invite you to continue reading to discuss some different perspectives about sex work in Canada and ask that you be open to hearing the voices of sex workers. These folks are more than capable of telling their own stories and describing what they need to be safe doing their work if we give them the space to be heard. Those same individuals are telling us that the current system of criminalizing sex work is not working. Sex, and sexuality, are an integral part of the majority of human beings’ lives. There may always be a segment of people whose sexual needs are not fulfilled 100 per cent of the time. Therefore, some form of sex work will always be required to fulfill those needs. That’s why we need to overcome our discomfort and talk about the safest, best- regulated, sex industry we can have in Canada.
Defining Sex Work
Sex work is defined as “the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for some form of remuneration – money or goods – with the terms agreed between the seller and buyer.”[i] It’s important to note that any coerced sex, human trafficking, or sex involving those unable to consent like (eg. children or disabled individuals) is not sex work and people engaged in these crimes should continue to be punished under other sexual assault, human trafficking, or sexual exploitation of children laws. Sex work includes escorting, prostitution, exotic dancing or stripping, webcam modeling or camming, pornography, erotic massage, and other services. Not all sex work involves a lot of intimate contact with clients, many varieties involve limited or no physical contact, like phone or webcam services like OnlyFans.
Canadian Sex Work In The Legal Context The Legal Context Of Sex Work In Canada
Originally, Canada had a prohibitionist policy that sought to eliminate sex work by criminalizing both the provision and purchase of sex. For hundreds of years, sex workers and their clients were arrested, fined, imprisoned, and experienced other legal penalties. This legal context was overthrown in 2013 by the Bedford v. Canada Supreme Court decision, which found that Canada’s prostitution laws were unconstitutional based on sex workers’ security of personal rights.[ii] In response, the government had to create a new model for regulating sex work in Canada, which resulted in the 2014’s Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. This legislation is created from “The Nordic Model,” which is a term used to describe an approach to sex work similar across Sweden, Norway and Iceland. “The Nordic Model” has three main features:
It makes buying sex a crime punishable primarily through fines
It removes laws that criminalize the direct act of selling sex, including laws on solicitation
It criminalizes the organization and/or promotion of selling sex through a variety of different criminal offences[iii]
In a theoretical aspect, “Tthe Nordic Model” is progressive in that it legalizes the direct act of selling sex by people, which means workers they won’t be jailed or fined for their sexual activities and profits work. However, in practice, “The Nordic Model” still criminalizes sex work doesn’t put this right into practice by keeping the organization, promotion, or advertising of sexual favours as illegal.
How can you actually provide a service if you can’t legally form a business, or tell people what services you provide?
This has left Canada vulnerable with a very confusing complex legal framework around sex work when the Supreme Court has confirmed that sex workers have a constitutional right to work and provide services, but the government has prevented workers from exercising this right in a meaningful way.
Negative Impacts on Sex Workers
Since sex work functionally continues to be illegal in Canada, most workers are forced underground into secrecy to hide from law enforcement. They’re not allowed to establish a business, or a brothel, to provide their services in a safe way. This means most workers have to provide services, outdoors, in cars, in client’s homes, or other places that they don’t control and can’t ensure their own safety. Workers cannot screen and rule out their incompatible or dangerous clients through advertising and advance screening because that’s illegal. This means sex workers may be exposed to unsafe clients who abuse workers, refuse to pay them, or request services that the worker isn’t comfortable providing. Finally, clients feel a sense of impunity to assault and harm sex workers because they know that they’re criminalized, vulnerable, and unlikely to report incidents and/or altercations to the go to the police. When individuals are forced underground instead of being able to openly work and regulate their safety, it creates a toxic environment of secrecy, stigma, and criminality that doesn’t actually make these workers safer.
A Better Model of Sex Work Regulation
Two different models are seen around the world: Provide better safety options and regulate prostitution through decriminalization and legalization.
Decriminalization is the removal of all criminal penalties for sex work, which allows workers to receive the same protections and recognition as workers in other industries. An effective model of decriminalization can be found in New Zealand. Since 2003, New Zealand’s law decriminalization of prostitution while not endorsing or morally sanctioning prostitution or its use has created a framework to safe-guard the human rights of sex workers and protect them from exploitation; promotes the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers; contributes to public health, and prohibit the use of prostitution of persons under the age of 18 years of age.
The legislation also established regulations and standards for brothel operators.[iv] The last category of sex work regulation is complete legalization. Some examples of this model are prevalent in countries like the Netherlands and Germany, or several counties in the United States of America with fully decriminalized, regulated and taxed sex work industries.
This model expands upon decriminalization by expanding the workplace regulations, business licensing, taxation, and other government oversight of the industry. In these systems, workers don’t have to hide from the law, they’re fully integrated into a legal framework where their safety can be protected. These become above-board workplaces with strict health and safety rules to prevent harm for workers and their clients. These examples show that it’s possible for Canada to fully respect sex workers’ constitutional rights of those employed through sex trades to do their jobs in a regulated and safe way that could improve the economic outlooks and morale for some communities that’s better for our community.
You can help combat stigma towards sex workers, and learn more about the impacts of Canada’s sex work laws on workers by watching this short documentary by VICE Canada on YouTube. We thought it was interesting because this video features Lowell, a pop singer and former stripper, who meets with policy-makers and law enforcement to discuss Canada’s laws. Lowell also travels to Nevada to see how a regulated, legal sex industry functions. Finally, Lowell meets with a regular purchaser of sex work to see how he feels about his behavior becoming illegal.
For more information contact:
Vice President Equity
[i] Amnesty International. (2016). The Human Cost Of ‘Crushing The Market: Criminalization of Sex Work In Norway. Page 6. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR3640342016ENGLISH.PDF.
[ii] Wikiepdia. (n.d.). Canada (AG) v Bedford. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada_(AG)_v_Bedford
[iii] Amnesty International. (2016). The Human Cost Of ‘Crushing The Market: Criminalization of Sex Work In Norway. Page 18. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR3640342016ENGLISH.PDF.
[iv] Parliament.nz. 2021. Prostitution Law Reform in New Zealand – New Zealand Parliament. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from: parliament.nz/mi/pb/research-papers/document/00PLSocRP12051/prostitution-law-reform-in-new-zealand.