Sex Work: Decriminalize to Protect Prostitutes? (Part I)

“I’m the one who risks going to jail, so you’ll do what I say.”

Joannie Blouin, a sex worker, hears that sort of statement more and more from her clients.  

By Anne-Frédérique Hébert-Dolbec

That’s because since 2014, in Canada men and women who use sexual services or even have a conversation about it risk a heavy fine and a jail sentence of up to five years.

2014’s Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, treats prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation that disproportionately impacts on women and girls. Its goal is to “protect people who offer their sexual services from retribution and reduce the demand for prostitution as well as its incidence.”

In other words, the law aims to punish johns, and not sex workers.

On the ground, the reality isn’t so crystal clear. “It’s wrong to think that we’re safer now,” Blouin says. “Because of this law, we have to do everything faster. Since we can’t solicit on the street we have to get into clients’ cars, without time to look them over, or to set out conditions to keep us out of danger. The clients are more stressed. They can get threatening.”

With an aim to eradicate pimping, the law forbids that any material or financial benefit come from the purchase of sexual services. It’s illegal for an owner, manager or employee of a commercial enterprise such as a strip club, a massage parlor or an escort service to reap financial rewards if sexual services are offered in their establishment.

Creates Problems

“These penalties play a major role in the increase of risk. They create more problems than advantages,” says Lucie Lemonde, a professor at UQAM’s legal services department.

“The places where sex workers can ply their trade are more limited, as are the surveillance methods they can put in place to reduce the dangers they confront. It’s tough to hire a chauffeur or a bodyguard because they could be accused of pimping.”

In the pro-sex feminist camp, sex work is considered a legitimate choice of trade. A large number of sex workers, organizations that defend sex workers, and community social workers argue for the complete decriminalization of prostitution. They would like to see all prostitution-related offenses removed from the criminal code.

“There’s some confusion between sex work and sexual exploitation,” argues Maria Nengeh Mensah, a full professor at the school of social work and the institute for research and feminist studies at UQAM.

“Because of all the prejudices associated with this trade – violence, drugs, pedophilia – it can be difficult to imagine who would practice it by choice. We define sex workers as exploited people who we should put back on the straight and narrow.”

Safety and Dignity

On the other hand, the pro-sex camp wants to give sex workers the freedom necessary to ensure their safety, and to set out conditions on a mutual basis. “It’s a question of dignity and equality,” argues Cynthia Racine, responsible for the defense of sex workers for Projet L.U.N.E. (Libres, Unies, Nuancées, Ensemble).

“Sex workers should enjoy the same rights as anyone else. They aren’t victims, and they’re capable of figuring out the difference between consent and exploitation.”

Consent is inseparable from the notion of sex work. Its decriminalization in no way means that sex trafficking, sex slavery or underage prostitution would suddenly be legal. “In these cases, the legal penalties would still apply,” says Mensah. “It’s already illegal to assault, to rape, to beat someone, or to force someone to perform sex work. Minors will still be protected. We don’t have to invent new laws to protect the milieu; those laws already exist.”

First seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 29, no. 4, mai (May) 2021, pages 12 – 13

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