Sex Work

Lets Not Import Canada's Sex Work Bill

Canada's new proposals criminalize johns, while decriminalizing those engaged in prostitution.


Pace Society/Twitter

Though it has received little coverage in American media, Canada has spent the past 10 months in an intense debate about its prostitution laws. Last December, the nation's Supreme Court struck down basically all anti-prostitution laws on the grounds that they violated Canada's Constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The elimination of prostitution laws will go into effect this December, and the Conservative Canadian government has been rushing to get a replacement in place that will satisfy the Supreme Court. 

Both anti-trafficking groups and sex-worker rights proponents opposed Canada's prior status quo—also the status quo in America—under which individuals engaging in prostitution could be prosecuted. The new legislation, known as Bill C-36, is similar in many ways to what's called the Nordic model: it criminalizes johns, while decriminalizing those engaged in prostitution. A good explanation of the bill's exact provisions can be found here.

The bill is popular with anti-prostitution and anti-sex trafficking groups, which see prostitution as innately exploitative and those engaging in it to always be victims. Activist Trisha Baptie of the anti-trafficking group EVE Canada says that compared to Canada's previous prostitution laws, "C-36 is a huge step forward in terms of women's equality and women's safety."

However, Baptie doesn't think C-36 is perfect. The bill still criminalizes prostitution in areas around daycares and schools, and she worries that these laws will be used "against street prostituted women, who are the most vulnerable and marginalized."

James Barnes, director of the U.S.-based anti-trafficking organization Breaking Out, expressed further reservations. He worries that  criminalizing johns will "push [prostitution] more underground" and create more abuse. "C-36 might be a step in the right direction, but is it going to fix it in one day? Of course not," Barnes says. 

Sex workers and their supporters have even less faith in a C-36 model. And U.S.-based sex workers worry that the idea could catch on here. Audacia Ray, director of New York City sex-work advocacy group the Red Umbrella Project, points out that an "'End Demand' philosophy is already gaining ground in America. It has inspired stings aimed at johns in particular—though sex workers are always quietly arrested as well.

Even if sex worker prosecutions would end, Ray says that "criminalizing johns doesn't really help that much because it means clients are going to be much more nervous about providing information to workers, which makes work much more unsafe." And Ray thinks we should think of the johns, too: "I haven't seen a lot of good statistics on who gets arrested when johns get arrested. But my impulse is that any time there's an increase in criminalization or policing it's typically poor people and people of color who get arrested."

Mistress Matisse, a professional dominatrix and writer, told me that "the U.S. has some of the most draconian laws regarding consensual sex work of any nation, so it is tempting, as an American sex worker, to look at Canadian Bill C36 and think 'it's still a lot better than the U.S. system'."

"But historically, the U.S. has used any laws it can to control and punish people's sexual behavior," Matisse says. "So if laws similar to C-36 were proposed in the U.S., I'd be inclined to regard it as merely a semantic game, and to think that vulnerable populations would continue to be targeted and arrested."

Matisse also notes that Canada's bill criminalizes sex-work advertising. While it remains to be seen how the criminal penalties against this will be enforced, preventing communication with clients can still create serious problems and increase safety risks, she says. 

It seems anti-trafficking groups think that C-36 might be an improvement on U.S. laws, albeit with numerous reservations. Sex worker rights advocates, on the other hand, see C-36 as a mostly misguided shuffling of the status quo. It has some advantages in theory, but in practice it won't be much of an improvement for sex workers. 

Part of the disconnect seems to go to the competing rationale behind C-36. In striking down Canada's previous prostitution laws, the Supreme Court made it clear that the constitutional right of sex workers to "life, liberty, and security" should be the government's primary concern. Bill C-36 is supposedly in line with that.

But provisions of the bill make it difficult for sex workers to advertise or work together and criminalize them if they are in certain areas. This suggests that the government is still focused on protecting others from the (nebulous) threat of sex workers, rather than on protecting those engaged in prostitution from harassment or abuse. As long as that is the case, it seems unlikely that the legal climate in Canada, or the U.S., will see much change for the better.

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  1. Noah Berlatsky Solicits Sex Workers’ Thoughts on Canada’s New Prostitution Proposals

    I see what you did… pretty much everywhere in that headline. Nicely done.

  2. Harper and the Socons can’t stop trying to impose their archaic values on everyone else.

    Of course, the Liberals and the NDP would do the same thing, only in the interests of ‘protecting the women.’

    MYOB, idiots.

    1. Leftards are all pro-choice until that evil money comes into play. They are at least as bad.

      1. Yer body belongs to you… Except when it does NOT! All VERY logical, ye see…

  3. the nation’s Supreme Court struck down basically all anti-prostitution laws on the grounds that they violated Canada’s Constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms

    Rights and Freedoms, how quaint. I think they need to get themselves a commerce clause and a penaltax. Adding an invisible, undocumented, and all encompassing FYTW clause would be most beneficial.

  4. So, the logic of the law is, it’s OK to sell sex, but not ok to buy it?

    The law is ideally supposed to make sense and follow similar internal logic and not be reactionary or based on the whims of individuals.

    1. No, the logic of the law is that it endangers the liberty, safety, and/or security of certain people if selling sex is illegal, but not if buying sex is.

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  7. Sex workers? Fuck ’em…

    1. …but the government won’t let us!

  8. Hmm. This is sort of like legalizing drugs but prosecuting those that use them. Nice!

  9. I don’t see the logic. Then again, I’m not a fan of how the Conservatives tackle social policy in Canada. On one hand, Harper talks about individual liberty by, say, abolishing (correctly) the long-gun registry but then goes all draconian on prostitution. They pick and choose what we can be free about.

  10. One issue I don’t see above is that those who promote the Swedish model NEVER promote it in countries in which sex worker is criminalized for both parties, as in the U.S. They ONLY promote it in countries where prostitution per se is legal.
    It’s important to note that there is still criminalization of a long list of activities sex workers engage in within the Swedish Model. Some narrow acts by sex workers are not against the law in this model. (Canada narrows this even more that Sweden with it’s limitation on sex workers.) The new Swedish/prostitution abolitionist model generally only adds the ‘purchasing of sexual services’ to the long list.
    I would be extremely curious to see if an abolitionist group would propose their law in the US. It is extremely disingenuous for them to be touting the decriminalization of the sex workers in theory, but supporting their criminalization. What they advocate for in countries like the US is more arrests and more shaming of clients, not an end to arrest of prostitutes.
    I would not support such a punitive system as the Swedish Model, of course, but I ask myself if it could lead to decriminalization eventually, or if it would prolong the misery and delay the goal of decriminalization.
    More of Mistress Matisse here:…..end-demand

    1. There does seem to be advocacy of End Demand (a Nordic model type approach) by anti-trafficking organizations/proponents in the U.S. in local jurisdictions (as Matisse says in the article you link.) This doesn’t seem to have done much towards reducing sex worker arrests (for instance, in NYC, there’s been some movement towards getting women services or couseling, but it’s done through anti-trafficking courts, so the women still end up getting arrested before they can access services ? and the services end up being coercive rather than voluntary.)

      1. The Swedish-Nordic Model is based on (supposedly) decriminalizing the sex workers. That’s crucial to the plan. In the US they just use ‘End Demand’ it as a ‘cover’ to ask for increased client arrests but I have never seen an actual law or campaign by them to stop the criminalization of the sex workers…which is the Swedish model. But to clarify, even in Sweden, many activities by the sex workers are still illegal…so in essence they are not really decriminalized. But if you find any actual efforts to actually make sex work ‘not illegal’ for sex workers I am eager to see that! Prostitution courts, diversion programs have been going on for years and is not at all about that, as you note…although maybe some people are framing it that way. A range of materials here :

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