Prostitution, Canada and the Christian Right: Why C-36 Won’t “Stop” Sex Work

July 23, 2014 in General

In the Globe and Mail recently (15.07.2014), Frances Shaver denounced Bill C-36, Canada’s new prohibitionist anti-sexworker legislation.  She noted that C-36 is the Conservatives’ third chance to respond appropriately to concerns about the safety and security of those working in the sex industry and predicted that once more, prohibitionism would fail.

30 years ago, the Conservatives legislated in response to the Special Committee on Pornography and Prostitution. The legislation failed to act on the committee’s recommendation to allow for two or three people to work together and instead simply replaced the soliciting offence with “communicating” (the section struck down in the latest Canadian Supreme Court ruling). According to Shaver, it  also failed to introduce changes to enforcement patterns: they continued to be gender, class, and sector biased.

They legislated in 2004, in response to the House of Commons Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws. Their report paid too much attention to the sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking and too little to the ways that current Canadian laws and their enforcement pushed adult sex workers into situations that put their health and safety at risk and leave them open to stigma, discrimination and violence.

Bill C-36 is their third chance and so far – based on the provisions in the Bill – it seems that the proposed legislation will fail again. The bill resembles the state of affairs before the passage of New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act 2003. It proposes to criminalize communication in public for the purpose of prostitution (soliciting), the purchase of sexual services, material benefit, procuring (managing sex workers and their venues), and the advertisement of sexual services. In addition, it effectively prohibits indoor sex work and sabotages safe sex education and practise indoors.

Laws should not be about morality. In a pluralistic society such as that of Canada (and New Zealand)  we must separate personal moral values and opinions from the legal and policy positions we take. Canadians have accomplished this with legislation governing birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and gay marriage. Why not with sex work?

Many liberal Canadians, ordained ministers and laity of various faith groups and denominations made it clear that – even though they “uphold marriage as an ideal and as the normative place for sexual relations” and have “great concerns about the commodification of sex” – they do not  support C-36. And, according to the latest Angus Reid Poll, Canadian women and men – who continue to hold significantly divergent views on the buying and selling of sexual services – do not extend these differences to their overall opinions of Bill C-36. Almost half of both genders (47 per cent) say they oppose the proposed law, more than a third (35 per cent) support it, and 18 per cent say they aren’t sure.

These two examples demonstrate that some members of the Canadian public can separate their personal values from their legal opinions. Will the Harper Conservative government be able to do the same? Last week, they got another chance after listening to the views of individuals and groups who appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. Decriminalising the sale and purchase of sexual services would be preferable to Bill C-36 since it avoids the negative effects of one person or group imposing a moral position on others. It would also be more consistent with the evidence regarding the wide variety of individuals involved as both buyers and sellers of sexual services, most of whom are neither “perverts” nor “victims”. Decriminalisation would strengthen relationships among sex workers, between sex workers and clients, and between sex workers and third parties; all serving to enhance the safety and security of the work environment. Canadians would also be better off using laws that directly target violence and exploitation (e.g., assault, criminal harassment, forcible confinement) than broad prohibitions formulated on misrepresentations and prejudice.

In an earlier editorial (16.07.2014), the Globe and Mail  noted:

When the government tabled Bill C-36 in June, its problems were obvious. The proposed law echoes the so-called Nordic model, used in countries such as Sweden, where selling sex is legal – but buying it is a crime. The bill takes a transaction that is currently legal in Canada and makes it illegal, at least on one side. The goal is to reduce the demand side of the equation. The trouble is, outlawing one side of the transaction will have an impact on both sides. Prostitution will get pushed into the shadows, where sex workers face precisely the kinds of danger the Supreme Court warned about. Many legal experts think the government’s proposed new law will ultimately get struck down for the same reasons that grounded the old one.


Frances Shaver: “Prostitution laws: 30 years of Conservative failure” Globe and Mail: 15.07.2014: