Human rights and sex work

Amy Lebovitch (Sex Professionals of Canada) and Shawna Ferris (Women’s & Gender Studies) argue that current laws don’t protect basic human rights for sex workers.

Three prostitution-related laws are being challenged in Ontario, with Lebovitch as one of the co-applicants. Section 210 of the Criminal Code is known as the common bawdy house law and relates to any place used for sex work. Section 212(1)(j) criminalizes living off the avails of prostitution, which can be applied to a sex worker’s spouse, driver, receptionist or manager. Section 213(1)(c) forbids communicating in a public place for the purpose of prostitution.

Winnipeg seems to have adopted an unofficial Nordic model for dealing with sex work, according to Ferris. (See a recent newspaper story on Winnipeg’s new approach.) That model focuses on criminalizing the clients and not the workers. However, this is based on the false idea that prostitution is always a form of violence against women, with all sex workers victims who must be protected. Lebovitch said the Nordic model was not created in consultation with sex workers. It does not promote anonymous testing for sexually transmitted infections, sex workers have had their children taken away from them because they are considered unfit parents and services are difficult to access unless a sex worker denounces the profession and agrees to enter therapy. The results are personal and professional isolation, stigma and coercion.

Legalization isn’t necessarily a good thing either. The speakers said it often results in licensing regulations with high fees, forced health checks and sex work only being legal in brothel settings. Forced health checks are stigmatizing and problematic for many reasons. They often require sex workers to see a specific doctor chosen by the brothel owner rather than seeing their own doctors. These forced health checks are typically legally mandated once every week or two, as opposed to sex workers consulting with their doctors on an appropriate schedule. Clients are not required to demonstrate that they are disease free but after being assured that sex workers have health checks, many clients insist they don’t need protection.

Lebovitch said the New South Wales and New Zealand decriminalization models are still not perfect, as they include zone restrictions on where outdoor sex workers can work.

In other countries, sex workers with criminal records can’t leave the country and unaffordable licensing schemes force sex workers to either work without a licence or with those who may not have their best interests at heart. Social stigma is pervasive everywhere.

Lebovitch and Ferris argue that legislators must work with sex workers to come up with an evidence-based model to decriminalize sex work and thus afford sex workers in Canada the protection they deserve, like other members of society.

Discussion

Does licensing encourage a grey market?

Yes, because then you have to be registered with the police, and provide them with all your information, including, in some areas, information about your vehicle. Many sex workers are unable to obtain the licences because they are too expensive, or because they do not want to give their personal information. Licences for escort services in Canada are between $4,000 and $7,000, far greater than for other neighbouring businesses, so it ends up just being a tax.

Would the problem of pimps disappear with changes in sex work law?

The pimp problem is exaggerated. “Pimp” is used to describe all managers of sex workers but should really only be applied to people who exploit those working for them. Lebovitch believes she should be able to pay someone for managerial services if she so chooses. There are other laws on the books to deal with those who are exploiting people as pimps.

Do you see any risks to removing the existing laws?

Sex workers need to be the go-to people when adjusting these laws. There should be a sex workers’ association similar to the midwife association or medical association. Right now the laws stigmatize workers, and prevent us from going to the police. The laws are based on stigma but also facilitate it.

 

Comments are closed