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Canada: Racial and Gender Justice for Sex Workers

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, Anna-Louise Crago and Robyn Maynard argue for decriminalization of sex work in Canada. 

By Anna-Louise Crago and Robyn Maynard

Sex workers in Canada need decriminalization within a framework of decolonized racial and gender justice.

On Dec. 20, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously found that the existing laws criminalizing sex work “put the safety and lives of prostitutes at risk, and are therefore unconstitutional.”

It was the culmination of two cases brought forth by sex workers. The first was filed by Terri-Jean Bedford, an African-Canadian dominatrix and former street-based worker; Valerie Scott; and Amy Lebovitch. The second was brought to court by a large group of street-based sex workers, many of them Indigenous. They hailed from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a neighborhood where more than 50 sex workers—most of them Indigenous—had been murdered in a little over a decade.

They argued that criminalizing sex workers, their clients, and non-coercive third parties—such as brothel managers or support workers—through provisions against “communicating for the purposes of prostitution,” being “found in a bawdy house,” and “living on the avails of prostitution,” impeded sex workers’ ability to screen clients, protect each other, or work in safer venues.

A large body of social science evidence in Canada supported these claims. The Commission of Inquiry into Missing and Murdered women from the Downtown East Side made clear that the laws had devastating impacts on the most marginalized individuals in finding “a clear correlation between law enforcement strategies … and increased violence against prostitutes.” As the trial judge put it, the laws “force[d] prostitutes to choose between their liberty” and their “security.” Other research showed Black women were being profiled for presumed involvement in prostitution, which often escalated into abuse by law enforcement.

In 2014, the Conservative government recriminalized sex work following what has come to be known as the “Nordic” or “End demand” model, marketed as a means of eradicating the sex trade. The model criminalizes clients, while still retaining the criminalization of non-coercive third parties and of sex workers who work together indoors. Despite the claims of anti-sex work advocates, sex workers are still directly penalized in many countries and jurisdictions that claim to have adopted the model. In Canada, street sex workers remain criminalized if they “communicate for the purposes of prostitution” near a school or place of worship or if they impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic. When sex workers work together from an apartment and share expenses, they can be subject to third party laws. If, for instance, one sex worker pays another for the electricity bill, the one receiving payment can be considered to profit from prostitution—a criminal offense.

In Canada, the introduction of this model seemed tragically familiar to many sex workers. Indeed, many local police departments had already adopted an “end demand” enforcement strategy. One study found that in Vancouver, this led to displacement, isolated working conditions, and high levels of violence against the most marginalized sex workers—cis and trans women street sex workers, a large proportion of whom are Indigenous or racialized. This echoes Amnesty International’s finding that, as Catherine Murphy describes in an article by Melissa Gira Grant in The Nation, Norway’s Nordic Model-laws are, “having the most detrimental impact on the most marginalized sex workers who are predominantly migrant women working on the street, of Nigerian descent.”

In contrast, in New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalized, a large-scale study found street and indoor sex workers reported greater protection from violence, power to refuse clients, and legal recourse post-decriminalization.

Canadian sex worker organizations continue to advocate decriminalization, as supported by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Movement for Black Lives, and many others. Sex workers know all too well that human lives, primarily those of the most marginalized and racialized cis and trans women, are the cost of laws that aim to eradicate sex work through criminalization rather than seeking to eradicate violence and uphold sex workers’ human rights.



Anna-Louise Crago is a former sex worker. She is a Trudeau scholar at the University of Toronto studying sex workers' experiences of armed conflict in Democratic Republic of the Congo and a 2016 winner of the Canadian Governor General's Award for her work advancing sex workers' human rights and gender equality.

Robyn Maynard is a writer, educator, and activist based in Montreal whose work focuses on the criminalization of marginalized communities. Her first book, Policing Black Bodies, will be published by Fernwood Publishing in 2017.

[Photo courtesy of Millylove60]


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