Government releases results of public consultation

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Yesterday, The Government of Canada released the final report for the Online Public Consultation on Prostitution-Related Offences in Canada based on the 31,172 responses they received.

I’ve expressed my distaste for the way the consult has been done in the past (and some sex worker groups have outright dismissed it), so for those looking at the results as though they matter all that much, I have three questions: 

  • What do you actually know about sex work? What is the source of this information?
  • Why does your opinion on sex work matter?
  • What do you stand to lose if the Swedish Model (often called the Nordic Model) is implemented?

I certainly didn’t expect the government to ask questions that would disrupt the narrative that criminalization is the best way of dealing with a perceived problem, after all, they have a huge amount invested in maintaining the prison system. But in my opinion, the Minister and the Government have brought their biases to the table, and to the consult. So while some may point to the consultation as proof that Canadians want clients of sex workers to be criminalized, in an issue as morally charged as this one, where there is a willful blindness to quality information and militant silencing of lived experience, we need to think carefully about the value of public consultations.

“We know there is tremendous violence and vulnerability associated with prostitution. Prostitutes are predominately victims.”Peter MacKay, via CBC 

“We believe that prostitution is intrinsically degrading and harmful to vulnerable persons, especially women and we intend to protect women and protect society generally from exploitation and abuse.” Peter MacKay, via CBC

As non-sex workers, we don’t have the right to lead the conversation about sex work or make decisions about other’s lives based on what would make us feel most comfortable. And yet we see clearly that many Canadians still put their flawed understanding of sex work ahead of the voices of workers themselves. According to the consultation report, while the majority of Canadians agree that selling sex shouldn’t be illegal, they are in also favour of the criminalization of clients.

These shortsighted views will no doubt be used to justify the governments imminent and inevitable implementation of a model that doesn’t serve the needs of the sex worker population.

It seems extremely likely that the Government will introduce a “made in Canada” version of the Nordic Model. This model is essentially the explicit criminalization of the purchase of sexual services. It’s logic rests in “ending demand”, or making it harder for clients to seek out sex workers, in the hopes that without demand, there will be no need for a supply.

Maybe, in some people’s feminist utopia, sex work doesn’t exist; maybe they see the Nordic Model as one step towards achieving this vision. And I can’t really blame them for thinking that if they haven’t been talking and listening to sex workers or doing research on sex work. Punishing men who purchase sex (bad men, men who cheat on their wives and bring home STIs, bad men who “use” sex workers and who “buy” their bodies) makes “common sense”, seems to make the issue easily “solvable”, and makes non-sex workers feel good for taking a “stand” against bad men. 

Now, while that may make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, very few people who start to work with sex workers stick with this perspective for long. It is neither an accurate reflection of the realities of sex work, or solution to the violence and marginalization that sex workers do face.

I know this may come as a surprise, but most sex work involves at least two people: a sex worker and a client. The Supreme Court struck down the laws that criminalized sex work because they infringed on worker’s right to safety. But sex work is an exchange. Therefore, when you criminalize clients of sex workers, you will affect the ability of sex workers to do their job. =I would argue that you essentially criminalize the relationship between sex worker and client. After all, it takes two to tango, and no matter which side governments chooses to criminalize, we’ve seen that the result is reduced safety, security and wellbeing of sex workers.

The Nordic Model is associated with any number of negative consequences.

Criminalization means that clients who fear prosecution want to meet sex workers in isolated places, which weakens networks between sex workers and reduces their ability to support one another. Sex workers also have less time to screen their clients, in much the same way as under the challenged laws. Katrina Pacey laid out the importance of these measures on behalf of the Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, PACE Society, and Pivot Legal Society during the Supreme Court hearing of Canada v. Bedford (Pacey presents around 417 in the video).

In addition, police have confiscated condoms as evidence and service organizations are less likely to hand out condoms under the Nordic Model in case they are seen as complacent to criminal activity. Given that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were an area of concern for many who filled out the Canadian consultation, I wonder how many actually looked into the effects of the nordic model on STI transmission and sex worker safety. 

The Nordic Model does nothing to address the stigma faced by sex workers. In Sex Workers In the Maritimes Talk Back, workers in the Maritimes identified stigma as one of the worst parts of their job and often linked it to the violence they face.

 “Like I said, there’s good and bad [people] but, I don’t know, I don’t have [faith in the residents], and I don’t because if you get in court they treat you like a piece of shit. They treat you like you’re a nobody, right, like you’re just, oh just an old prostitute, like, standing on the street corner… like you’re a nobody. That’s not a good feeling.” Lydia*, Halifax

“The reason I feel that [clients have become more violent] is because the media portrays us as non-people.” […] It’s a job- it’s not a person. They’ve made it a person and they’ve made it a stereotypical low-life person and a disposable person, and the more that the media continues to do that, the more the tricks feel that they are allowed to be violent”Dana*, Halifax

I would imagine that most Canadians who filled out the consultation are interested in protecting people that they see as marginalized or vulnerable. But the Nordic Model doesn’t reduce stigma or make it easier for sex workers to seek services or go to the police when they need to. On top of that, when clients are criminalized they are unlikely to report violence they may see or approach the police with information for fear of prosecution. 

Bottom line? The Nordic Model simply recreates the harms created by the recently scraped model, and misses an opportunity to talk about sex work as labour. This moves us away from complicated discussions on creating safer working environments, workers rights, and resisting racism, transphobia and sexism within the sex industry. 

None of this is new or surprising. Reports on the effects of criminalization and the Swedish model have been around for a few years, sex worker run organizations across Canada have been producing resources and info-sheets, and most importantly, sex workers themselves have been warning about the effects of criminalization for far too long. 

“The experiences and expertise of sex workers should be the paramount considerations in any law reform that takes place in Canada. Like those in any other profession, sex workers have specific knowledge about how their profession should operate and expertise about the occupational health and safety issues that they face. The voices of sex workers are key in the development of laws and policies that will support safe working conditions and create possibilities for positive change in Canadian society” Katrina Pacey, Address to Parliament, March 2005

Despite all this work, the message seems to have not stuck with 56 per cent of Canadians who are pro-criminalization of the purchase of sex work. Yet because of the idea that we, as non sex workers, know what’s best, laws will be shaped in a way that makes us comfortable while sex workers suffer. It’s nothing short of shameful. 

You want to keep sex workers safe?

Listen to them, or get the hell out of the way. 

* Names in Sex Workers In the Maritimes Talk Back were changed.

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