The Canadian Department of Justice states that Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, “seeks to protect the dignity and equality of all Canadians by denouncing and prohibiting the purchase of sexual services, the exploitation of the prostitution of others.”
But by conflating sex working and human trafficking, it is putting sex workers in danger. And another bill introduced to the Ontario legislature in February of 2021 makes these matters even worse.
There is one way the Canadian government can resolve this conflict: completely legalize prostitution.
The current problem with Bill C-36 is that it is conflating prostitution with human trafficking laws. Sex workers that are victims of sex trafficking are seen as less deserving of aid and protection than other victims of trafficking due to moral stigma around their work. Additionally, sex workers who have not been trafficked have been incorrectly identified as victims, which creates unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system and may lead to arrests, deportation, and income loss.
The Act is broken into two sections: prostitution and trafficking. In the trafficking section, the main trafficking offence is recruiting or transporting someone for the purpose of exploiting them. Similar to the prostitution section, the trafficking section also has a material benefit offence, which criminalizes benefitting main offences.
One of the reasons the government includes prostitution and trafficking together is because they say the legalization of prostitution will increase the demand for prostitution, which will increase the volume of human trafficking.
However, human rights groups and sex worker advocates argue that the conflation of these two activities is leading to mistreatment and misidentification of sex workers. This conflation causes more frequent interactions with the police, which can be dangerous, as shown in a study of Asian migrant massage and holistic centers in Toronto. Conducted in 2018 by Butterfly, the study showed that more than a third of the workers had been abused or harassed by law enforcement during a human trafficking investigation.
Ontario’s Bill 251 gives the police the power to investigate human trafficking matters, which causes several conflicts for sex workers. This would allow the police to investigate and raid places they think are suspicious without any warrants or notice. According to Butterfly, during similar investigations like this, there have been numerous reports of police abuse and harassment. Some even reported that they were sexually assaulted and were asked to show their underwear.
Another problem the bill creates is that it violates one of the human rights. If people involved in these investigations don’t comply with the police, they risk a $50,000 or $100,000 penalty. These people are forced to answer questions that might give them criminal charges or threaten their immigration status since they are forced to give details of their work when they are asked to. The Butterfly group is declaring that forcing these workers to answer questions is a violation of their constitutionally protected right to remain silent.
Fortunately, there are ways we can stop the problematic conflation of sex work and trafficking. By legalizing prostitution, we would create a safer environment for sex workers in general.
Bill C-36 criminalizes five activities related to prostitution: In the prostitution section, the purchasing offence states that purchasing or communicating for the purpose of purchasing sexual services is not allowed. This forces sex workers and clients to meet up in less public places, and are workers are forced to give their services in more dangerous locations. It also makes filtering dangerous clients very difficult because it is illegal to communicate with their client prior to the meeting.
The advertising offence penalizes whoever advertises the sale of sexual services. The material benefits offence criminalizes profiting off of prostitution, including in a commercial context. Businesses such as brothels are illegal due to this Act. If advertising were legalized, it would make it easier for the government to regulate and implement safety protocols, which would make it a safer environment for sex workers to work in.
The procuring offence states that you are not allowed to cause or induce someone to sell sexual services. Legalization of this offence would allow sex workers to have a choice of procurers and will lessen the risk of having an abusive, exploitative procurer.
If the Canadian government were to legalize all aspects of prostitution, there would not be any conflation between trafficking and prostitution. During human trafficking investigations, law enforcements often fail to help the trafficked victims and instead focuses primarily on prostitution, seeking to arrest procurers, businesses, and other illegal activities. To find these activities, they often force sex workers to answer the questions they are asked. With prostitution being legalized, trafficked victims will be able to get the support they need since there is no need for law enforcement to search for illegal activities.
If the Canadian department of justice seeks to protect sex workers and trafficked victims, instead of conflating prostitution and trafficking, which are making matters even worse, they must start by making changes to the current laws.
Cover Image: underclassrising