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A look into the criminalization of sex work in Canada

Criminal Code of Canada continues to create unsafe working conditions

“In order to avoid getting arrested, they’ll just hop into someone’s car as soon as they stop so that they can avoid being charged with communication. That has been reported as increasing the dangers towards people who are working,” Robyn Maynard told The Daily when speaking on the current legal restrictions that risk the safety and dignity of sex workers.

Maynard is a street worker with the community-based initiative Stella, a ‘by sex workers for sex workers’ group that strives to provide resources to, and improve the health and safety conditions of, sex workers.

Currently, being a sex worker in Canada is legal; however, certain sections of the Criminal Code of Canada (CCC) restrict the freedom with which sex workers can operate.

According to Article 210 of the CCC, “Every one who keeps a common bawdy-house is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.” However, according to Maynard, the consequences of Article 210 have the potential to profoundly affect the livelihoods of sex workers.

“A lot of women like to work together with a larger group of people, so that they can work with security,” Maynard told The Daily, “but this was made illegal by 210, which means people can be evicted, lose their apartments, and be charged criminally just for being in a place where they’re working.”

According to Maynard, this also means the workers are less likely to keep condoms and other safe sex materials onsite, for fear of the materials being used as evidence against them in a criminal charge for being found in a bawdy-house.

Among other things, Article 212 of the CCC makes it illegal for third parties to procure or solicit sex workers for clients, and makes “enticing another person to engage in prostitution” illegal.

“There’s a part of [Article] 212 called ‘living off the avails’ that makes it illegal for women who are working in the sex industry [to] hire security [… or] a receptionist to screen their calls,” Maynard said. “[There are many] things that people put in place for their safety. [These are] currently illegal and treated the same as, say pimping, or exploitation, which no one is fighting to decriminalize. They’re also treated as one and the same under the law.”

Article 213, on the other hand, details the restrictions of sex work, limiting solicitation in “public places.” Sex workers may not receive clients in the same place more than once. As a consequence, time and space for consensual agreements become limited.

“[Article 213 essentially] makes it illegal for people to actually discuss any of the details around sexual services, whether that’s negotiating condom use, or even taking time to talk with the client to feel out if this is somebody that they would or would not like to see,” said Maynard.

Some strides are beginning to make way. In 2009, sex workers Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott brought forward their case, which came to be known as Bedford v. Canada, to court in Toronto. After a year of deliberation, in 2010, Justice Susan Himel struck down these articles on the grounds that they were in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The federal government later appealed the decision. In 2012, the Ontario Court of Appeals struck down the bawdy-house provisions as unconstitutional; however, it maintained that Article 213 – which deals with solicitation – did not go against the Charter.

The applicants of Bedford v. Canada, which is currently on appeal at the Supreme Court of Canada, argue that these articles directly violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 7 of which reads, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

In addition, the applicants also claimed that the CCC makes their right to communicate with their clients illegal, and that this is another violation of the Charter, which is supposed to protect “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.”

“A lot of those laws that seem like they’re for women’s rights […] actually have extremely negative effects in terms of the working conditions and safety of sex workers,” said Maynard. “Those laws are not being brought forward by sex workers – they’re being brought forward by people who want sex workers to not exist in general.”