COVID-19 has been responsible for profound social change. The consequences have been astonishing with lengthy closures for universities, non-essential institutions and businesses, over 100,000 confirmed cases as well as family members quarantined in different parts of the country. The virus has certainly aggravated existing problems in Canadian law and politics with devastating effects on the individual. Jenn Clamen -the national coordinator for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform (CASWLR), sat with the MJPS to discuss the effects of the criminalization of sex work, especially during this precarious time.

CASWLR focuses on engaging with lawmakers to advance the decriminalization of sex work. In our conversation, Jenn noted a sense of exhaustion within the organization and frustration towards having the same conversations with politicians, ultimately resulting in no change whatsoever. Despite committing to review PCEPA in 2015 and promises by former Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould to review sex work laws, Jenn contends that the Liberal government has done nothing to date. 

The bureaucratic red tape and misleading rhetoric are just two factors that crucially affect the reality for sex workers in Canada. Clamen was quick to mention that the rhetoric used by the Canadian government, the public and many anti-sex work feminists to discuss the current laws surrounding sex work, creates a misleading image that implies sex work is decriminalized. “The act of sex work itself, for the first time in history, is illegal in Canada,” Clamen clarifies, referring to the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), passed in 2014 following the Supreme Court’s decision in Canada v. Bedford. 

Before PCEPA, almost every activity related to sex work was illegal. For example, section 210 of the Criminal Code -” the bawdy house regulation,” asserted that it was illegal to use, own, work or rent a house that sex work took place in; section 211 stated that it was illegal to take someone to a bawdy house; section 212, made it illegal to live off of the avails of sex work, including third parties responsible for the safety of sex workers; and section 213 made it illegal to communicate in public for the purposes of exchanging sexual services for money. Prostitution was not illegal, but everything one had to do to work was. 

Although PECPA technically insulates sex workers from being prosecuted as a result of their work, Jenn points out that sex work is still illegal. She also notes that this manipulation of language is intentional and a result of the shift from criminalization policy based on the idea that prostitution is a public nuisance to victimizing ideology that conflates sex work and human trafficking. As Jenn explains, this victimizing ideology is widely used by sex work prohibitionists to argue sex work should be eliminated as a question of public safety. 

Additionally, Jenn states that anti-trafficking rhetoric, as it pertains to sex work, is often anti-migrant, and has been used to authorize the surveillance and over-policing of sex workers. In other words, anti-trafficking rhetoric denies the agency of migrant women and tends to make the wrongful assumption that all women who migrate to Canada are being exploited. In reality, the term ‘trafficking’, as Jenn mentions, usually isn’t well defined, and is used to conflate various groups, from children who are being exploited, migrating adults, to those that work in the sex industry. Jenn also points out that those who use anti-trafficking rhetoric to oppose the decriminalization of sex work are also typically adverse to understanding notions of agency in women who migrate for various purposes. 

As Jenn notes, there is a slippery slope between eliminating sex workers and eliminating sex work. The fact remains that when exploitation occurs in other industries, the legal reaction is not to criminalize the entire industry. Rather, policies are adopted to address exploitation and protect the rights of workers. With the criminal laws introduced through PCEPA, exploitation continues, and the rights of sex workers are not protected. Jenn also points out that rather than being listened to, sex workers are homogenized as victims, mostly by individuals who have never worked in the industry before. This label is used to silence sex workers and deny their agency. Minimizing the agency of sex workers also obstructs the push for the lawful recognition and protection of sex worker rights. 

Clamen also asserts that the decriminalization of sex work laws is not the only way to recognize the rights of sex workers. Decriminalization also requires the reform of all of the systems that impact sex worker’s lives, including immigration regulation, occupational health and safety, public health, youth protection, employment standards and labour frameworks. On a local level, this means engaging with systems that influence policing, housing and education. Recognizing the intersecting identities that individuals hold while engaging in the industry is also important, as one’s race, gender identity, sexual orientation or immigration status has implications on their safety. All of these aspects must be considered to achieve a holistic vision of decriminalization. Removing PECPA is the first step, but it is by no means the only step.

A common objection to the decriminalization of sex work, are attitudes of morality surrounding the industry. The protection and respect for inalienable human rights – rights every person working in Canada should enjoy, is a unique struggle for sex workers because of the assumptions and stereotypes surrounding their work. Jenn asserts that beyond notions of morality, sex worker rights should be considered labour that provides economic benefits, just like any other job. 

COVID-19 has created an environment of unease and anxiety, whether that be about the protection and safety of one’s family or the loss of a job. For sex workers, COVID-19 does not just mean the loss of a job and stable income, but also the inability to apply for Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) without disclosing their employment in the sex industry, and losing anonymity. Additionally, because they are criminalized, most sex workers are reluctant to engage with formal government systems. As a result, they may not have paid taxes, which is a mandatory prerequisite to qualify for CERB. 

In this precarious time, sex workers are thus left without federal income support to pay rent or afford groceries. In addition to this, they are systematically surveilled, policed, and victimized for making the decision to work in the sex industry. These are the real challenges that sex workers face because of criminalization. This is why Jenn argues, decriminalization is so important.

Edited by Eyitayo Kunle-Oladosu

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the contributor(s). They do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Feature Image by Bojan Cvetanović via Wikimedia Commons.