The “F” Word

Bill C-36 is criminal.

Pauline Tiongson / The Runner
Pauline Tiongson / The Runner

Aileen Tran

Sex work is not criminal, Stephen Harper is. On Nov. 4, the federal government made the treacherous decision of passing Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. The bill is highly criticized, and rightly so because the act is built on a false premise. The Conservative government keeps telling us that the enforcement of Bill C-36 will protect sex workers but in fact it will do the contrary.

Bill C-36 will make it legal to sell sex, but not to buy it. Makes a lot of sense, right? The bill also makes it illegal for sex workers to discuss their sales or advertise in public. “The objective is to (lower) the demand and make prostitution illegal,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay said last month to a committee of senators.

Let’s be real, the criminalization of buying sex will not deplete the demands of sex work. Whether or not it is criminalized, sex will be sold. With Bill C-36 enforced, the lives of sex workers are more so at jeopardy than they are if sex work was to be decriminalized. So instead of trying to do the impossible, trying to end sex work and sex work demands, the government should be trying to make it as safe as possible.

Within client-to-sex worker interaction, if the buyers are caught they will be criminally charged for purchasing sexual services, but sex workers will not be prosecuted for selling sex. However, sex workers will be criminally charged if they publicly communicate or advertise sexual sales. Many sex workers and sex work rights advocators share the opinion that this puts sex workers in danger.

“That piece of legislation was what caused the missing and murdered women of downtown Eastside Vancouver because they criminalized negotiating street level, pushing them into remote areas,” says Raven Bowen, a sex workers’ rights activist. The prohibition of publicly communicating the selling of sex will push sex workers to more isolated areas to make back-alley transactions. This is highly risky because not only are they no longer in the safety of the public, but they are now forced to work later hours of the night to avoid authorities. They will also be forced to make quick transactions without thorough client screening, increasing the chances of meeting violent perpetrators.

Another problem with the prohibition of advertisement is that people who manage erotic entertainment venues can be charged. This means higher-end sex workers are not able to advertise through these venues, and suddenly their wages are depleted, forcing them into the middle class range. Those who were already in the middle class (which mostly consists of women of colour) are now going to be pushed off the map because they are unable to compete.
The bill also makes a generalization of all sex workers as victims and that all sex work is human-trafficking, which is false. There are some people who are forced into the sex industry by external factors, but there are many sex workers who are in it voluntarily for a variety of reasons, including sexual empowerment or that they enjoy doing it. The stigmatization of sex work is something that needs to be addressed.

A friend of mine is a sex worker. He will be referred to as Sunny, his escort name. Sunny comes from a loving middle class family, which is outside the stereotype of sex workers. People should not necessarily be labeled as “oppressed” or “deprived” if they are selling their sexual services. Women should not be confined to having sex for free, but instead can choose whether or not they want to use it as a profiting service without being labeled as “troubled”.

One of the many problems with the bill is the generalization it makes not only for the clients but for the workers as well. Bill C-36 makes it seem like all the sex buyers are violent and immoral criminals. There are numerous of men who hire sex workers that are also buying for the companionship. “Most of my clients are couples who want to spice things up, divorced, men with limited dating options because of disabilities, and men who have not come out of the closet,” says Sunny. “I enjoy doing it because it makes me happy that I can make other people happy doing what I do best. Money is a byproduct, regular clients form friendships because they open up their sexual and emotional mindset to me.”

The criminalization of sex work did not work well in Sweden, even though statistically the number of clients purchasing sex went down. However, that is only because the clients are now traveling a bit further to legally buy sexual services in places like Denmark and New Zealand, where prostitution is decriminalized. There is a common argument that if sex work was decriminalized, more people would get into the industry. However, in these examples not only did the sex industry not increase in size, it also became safer because brothels became legal under the condition that they must promote safe sex. This protected the sex workers from intoxicated customers and those who refuse to use condoms.

There is a serious problem in letting our Conservative government (that is dominated by men) decide what is best for sex workers. The stigma surrounding the sex work industry needs to be addressed, and the workers themselves deserve the opportunity to decide how to best improve the industry. Let them have their own voice.

Aileen Tran is studying Journalism and Creative Writing at KPU. She enjoys destroying patriarchy and long romantic walks to the refrigerator.