Yesterday the Canadian government finally signed into law Bill C-36, a controversial and much-debated overhaul of the country's prostitution laws. Under the new law, prostitution per se is not illegal, but paying for sexual services or advertising their sale is. Like the so-called "Nordic model" of prostitution law, this is supposed to be an improvement over previous methods of criminalizing consensual sex between adults.
Only the most misguided of progressives actually see it as an improvement, however. Statists and social conservatives still find fault with the fact that selling sex won't necessarily get you jail time. I say won't necessarily, because there are still many ways for sex workers themselves to face prosecution under the new law, which makes "communicating for the sale of sexual services", online or in any pulic place, a crime. This is, in part, why sex workers and their allies oppose it: What good is an end to criminal penalties for selling sex if you can still be arrested for advertising or promoting prostitution? And how are sex workers supposed to safely make a living if their clients constantly fear arrest?
The answer, of course, is that they're not. The driving desire behind Bill C-36 is to "end demand" for prostitution so that it's eventually eradicated. Couple this with the trope that all sex workers are inherently victims, and here's where we end up. Canada's new law may mean less sex workers—the majority of whom are female—getting prosecuted for prostitution, but it comes at the expense of the idea that women are fully autonomous human beings capable of making decisions for themselves. It also comes with a corresponding rise in the number of (mostly) men prosecuted for purchasing sex, and the likelihood of little to no reduction in the power of the police state.
"This is an extremely concerning law…and stands in blatant disregard of clear evidence on the detrimental effects of the criminalization of sex work," said Dr. Kate Shannon, director of the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative and an associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia. "We know all too well from two decades of missing and murdered women in Canada and extensive research by our team and others criminalizing any aspects of sex work has devastating impacts on sex workers' safety, health, and human rights."
The country's previous prostitution laws (criminalizing the selling of sex) were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013 precisely because they violated sex workers' right to "life, liberty and security of the person" as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But proponents of the new law seem little concerned with this. "Of course, we don't want to make life safe for prostitutes," said conservative senator Donald Plett at a pre-hearing for C-36 last summer. "We want to do away with prostitution. That's the intent of the bill."
Noah Berlatsky wrote here in October about Canadian and U.S. sex-worker opposition to C-36 and efforts like it. For more on how these efforts will harm sex workers and clients, see these pieces from Vice and from Canada's Pivot Legal Society.