Sex sells. It’s an axiom of the marketing world that we, for the most part, accept. So why does the government refuse to implement fair laws for the individuals actually selling sex?
Sex workers want answers. On September 18, they converged on Parliament Hill to protest current legislation that fails to provide safe working conditions for sex work. The government has yet to rectify these laws, denying sex workers respect and security.
In Canada, sex sold between consenting adults is not illegal; however, federal anti-solicitation laws – detailed in sections 210-213 of the Criminal Code – endanger, isolate, and discriminate against sex workers. These laws prohibit public communication for the purpose of prostitution, making it illegal for sex workers to screen potential clients, leading to hasty decisions and unsafe conditions. Basically, according to the government, you’re entitled to sell your body, so long as you don’t talk, write, or signal your intent to sell it.
The laws also forbid solicitation in public and private establishments – you can’t solicit in a house, with a mouse, in a box, with a fox, here, there, or virtually anywhere. In addition, current legislation criminalizes bawdy houses, which have the potential to offer sex workers a clean and safe work environment.
Further, anyone who is close to a sex worker can potentially be penalized:.These laws criminalize individuals assumed to be parasitically living off prostitution. This isolates workers by targeting anyone sharing housing, money, or even taking down a client’s license plate number for safety. Criminalization promotes violence and prejudices toward sex workers because it reinforces stigmas that these women are immoral, unlawful, and undeserving of protection. The laws scream to sex workers, “Welcome to the fringes of society.”
Last month’s protest was led by Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work to Educate and Resist (POWER) and included the Montreal support group for sex workers, Stella. Although the protest was the first initiative for POWER, which formed in February, Stella has been working since 1995 to decriminalize sex work. These demands are being made from coast to coast.
In Vancouver, sex workers have been working toward cooperative initiatives for sex workers in the poverty-stricken downtown Eastside. The British Columbia Coalition of Experimental Communities (BCCEC) hopes to create a co-op brothel to provide sex workers with a safe, clean, and secure working environment. Their initial proposal for a cooperative catering company, arts collective, and consulting and publishing initiative for sex workers, however, was denied by the Conservative government.
BCCEC coordinator Susan Davis explained how Harper’s “tough-on-crime” initiatives directly harm her community. “They have no clue how they are destabilizing our safety, and they continue to compromise our lives – business as usual,” she said of Conservatives in an interview last Wednesday with The Daily. “It’s disgusting.”
The brothel could play a key role in improving conditions for the marginalized community. But for the vision to become a reality, the BCCEC needs to secure an exemption from the federal government, similar to the exemption Insite – Vancouver’s safe injection site – received. While these issues are not directly connected, the fate of both, and the communities they affect, will be largely determined by the upcoming federal election.
Sex workers are a vibrant community with ample ideas, but the government has chosen to ignore them. We urge legislators to sincerely consider their requests, and for voters to consider the Conservative’s disregard for sex workers’ wellbeing when casting their ballots.