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

“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 clients, and not sex workers.

On the ground, the reality isn’t so crystal clear.

Second Class Citizens

The special treatment that the 2014 law reserves for sex workers has perverse effects. Because of their profession, they are often seen as second class citizens. “It is very difficult to find housing. They basically have to lie, because a landlord can refuse them on the basis of their profession,” Blouin explains. “But afterwards, good luck welcoming clients at your place without attracting the neighbors’ attention with all that coming and going.”

This culture of secrecy applies to almost all levels of society: “Doctors often judge them negatively and often have trouble establishing a climate of confidence,” says Cynthia Racine, responsible for the defense of sex workers for Projet L.U.N.E. (Libres, Unies, Nuancées, Ensemble). “Sex work is considered degrading. Some mothers get denounced to youth protection officials, even if they have all the qualities necessary to take care of their children.”

Prostitutes are often harassed by police to leave public spaces. Access to jobs is also complicated: “If sex workers ever want to change jobs, they have to leave a 10 to 15 year hole in their resumés. That’s never a good selling point to an employer,” Racine points out.

The New Zealand Example

Opponents to the legalization of the sex trade – abolitionists – fear that permissiveness will increase the practice of prostitution. Yet this correlation hasn’t yet been established.

In 2003, New Zealand was the world’s first country to opt for decriminalization. They adopted radical reforms and threw out century-old laws on soliciting, running brothels and living off the avails of prostitution.

In a 2007 study funded by New Zealand’s Council on Health Research and the Justice Ministry, researchers showed that the reforms had had no impact on the number of people joining the sex trade. Indeed, 90% of participants to the study said they felt freer to negotiate the wearing of condoms, and to refuse clients. Only 4% reported having felt pressure to join the industry.

In fact, over half those surveyed said they were more apt to go to the police to report acts of violence. Overall relations with the police were said to have improved.

According to those we talked to from the pro-sex camp, New Zealand is the model to follow.  

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

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