Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Judge strikes down a portion of Canada's sex work laws

In December, AU opened a new course (LBST 415: Sex work and sex workers). One focus of the course is how governments regulate sex work and sex workers, with an eye to which approach yields the best results for sex workers.

In 2014, Canada amended the Criminal Code to decriminalize the sale of sexual services (in most instances). The purchase of sexual services and any acts designed to facilitate the sale of sexual services remain criminalized. 

This approach is often called the Nordic model and is intended to extinguish demand for sex work (although it has not) while making it safer for sex workers to seek police assistance (which it also has not). The law was supposed to have been reviewed by the government in 2019, but it was not.

An interesting development last month was that an Ontario judge struck down portions of Canada’s law on sex work that criminalized procuring, advertising, or materially benefitted from the sale of someone’s sexual services. The case involved a couple who ran an escort agency.

The judge’s rationale was prohibiting advertising violates freedom of expression while the laws against procuring and materially benefitting violate the Charter guarantee of security of person. The crux of the rationale is that the prohibitions make it difficult for sex workers to screen clients, work cooperatively, and to purchase certain services, all of which make sex work safer.

Those opposed to the decision frame this ruling as protecting pimps who traffic in exploited women and girls. While rhetorically powerful, this analysis ignores that there is significant nuance in the “management services” that sex workers may purchase as well as that human trafficking remains illegal.

This line of critique also contributes to the conflation of sex work and human trafficking. While there is overlap (some trafficked women and girls are involved in sex work, and some of this involvement in sex work is against their will), most sex work appears to be consensual activity.

That is not to say there isn’t an element of exploitation involved in sex work. But it is important to identify that sex workers have agency. A part of recognizing this agency is providing sex workers the opportunity to engage in sex work in ways of their choosing. Analysis of New Zealand (where sex work has been legalized) suggests this model yields the best outcomes for sex workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

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