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Canada: Sex Workers Need Decriminalization

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the winter 2016/2017 World Policy Interrupted issue is: What do sex workers need to better control their working conditions? Below, Brenda Belak explains why decriminalization of sex work is a better model than legalization. 

By Brenda Belak

Criminalization of sex work leads directly to exploitation. It puts sex workers in situations where they have little control over their working conditions because their primary concern is avoiding arrest. It means that sex workers are part of the informal labor market, without legal recourse when their labor rights are infringed. They are cut off from all the protections available to other workers, including employment standards and occupational health and safety standards. Criminalization also traps workers in the informal workforce, because with a criminal record or a gap in your formal employment history, it's harder to rejoin the world of “straight” work.

The same problems exist under partial criminalization, including the Nordic “end demand” model, which is based on the idea that sex workers can be protected by providing them with immunity from prosecution, while criminalizing their clients and the third parties they work with. In the countries where this model has been employed (Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and, most recently, Canada) there has been no marked reduction in the number of sex workers as a direct result of the legal change. Meanwhile, research has shown that the number of outdoor sex workers in many countries does decrease due to the increased use of the internet to connect with clients.

When any aspect of the sex industry is criminalized, sex workers operate under riskier conditions. Street-based sex workers are more likely to work alone and in isolated areas, with minimal time spent screening clients. Indoor workers have trouble getting clients to divulge personal details such as their real names, references, or phone information. This leaves clients untraceable if they turn out to be violent. Sex workers also cannot benefit from the safety of having other staff nearby. All sex workers are fearful of police, which means they won’t turn to the criminal justice system if they do experience violence. This allows predators posing as clients, as well as law enforcement officials, to abuse sex workers. Furthermore, crackdowns on buyers encourage sex workers to take more risks, work for less income, and engage in practices that could compromise their health, such as unprotected sex.

Decriminalization is not legalization. Decriminalization removes all criminal penalties for activities associated with sex work, permitting a focus on the human rights of sex workers as individuals and as workers. Local zoning bylaws can still be used to determine where and when sex work occurs. Under legalization, however, sex work is viewed as an activity that potentially endangers the public, and mandatory licensing and testing are used to control the perceived risks. Sex workers who are structurally marginalized—because they are poor, racialized, migrants, LGBTQ, or living with disabilities—often cannot comply with licensing requirements. This results in a second tier of illegal sex workers who experience many of the dangers caused by criminalization. Licensing can also result in breaches of privacy rights. Due to these negative effects of legalization, decriminalization is a preferable option.

Decriminalization involves removing all laws that punitively target the sex industry, but laws of general application prohibiting violence and trafficking would still be enforced. Decriminalization would allow sex workers to enjoy the benefit of labor protections that all other workers enjoy. It would mean sex workers have the right to work safely on their own terms. Sex workers worldwide have been asking for decriminalization for decades. It is the right thing for governments to do.

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Brenda Belak is the sex workers’ rights lawyer at Pivot Legal Society, a non-profit organization in Vancouver, Canada that does advocacy and strategic litigation on behalf of marginalized communities to achieve social change. She has worked extensively on violence against women as a human rights issue in national and U.N. forums and is on the advisory council for Canada’s federal Gender-based Violence Strategy.

[Painting courtesy of Directmedia Publishing]

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