Liberalization of Canada’s sex work laws: a more informed perspective

One of the things I’ve learned in my years (ironically, from a friend of mine) is that nobody can possibly be an expert on everything – as such, it’s a good idea to have a lot of friends who are experts at different things. That way when I need advice on understanding physical sciences, politics, law, current events, philosophy… basically anything that I don’t understand well, I can “cloud-source” it to any number of buddies who will be able to give me a much more in-depth look at things than I could manage on my own.

One of these is my pal T, who has devoted a lot of time and energy to understanding issues surrounding sex work and sex workers. Ze found me through the blog (coolest thing about this job – awesome people find me rather than me having to put in the effort to make it work the other way ’round) and we started talking about stuff. Ze opened my eyes up to some viewpoints I’d never considered before, and so when I heard about the Ontario ruling I immediately asked hir for hir thoughts. Ze was kind enough to school me a bit on some of the details and implications of the ruling. Hir response is below the fold.

It’s much better for the more middle and upper class echelons of sex workers, but it’s a massive fail when it comes to helping the workers who are most at risk — the ones on the street — on several counts. The trouble with the public solicitation laws is that it forces sex workers to hop into cars to communicate, and then it might be too late. So much is expressed through body language, and when it’s critical to your safety, you learn quickly to read people’s intent quickly. By undermining a sex worker’s ability to assess a potential client before they are enclosed in a tight space with them, they are put at grave risk. It can take a single punch to stun someone or render then unconscious, and weapons are all too easily hidden in vehicles. That isn’t to say that it wouldn’t be easy to play nice for a few minutes of chitchat, but it would absolutely help weed out the obviously disturbed.

It is, of course, entirely possible to hide one’s intentions, but let’s not forget the existence of bad date lists circulated by advocates and workers. Let’s say, as an example, that there is a description going around about a white male, between 40-50, dark thinning hair with a moustache and a gap in his front teeth, who drives a light coloured sedan, who beats, rapes and rips off the workers he pick up. Now let’s say Tina is a worker who reads the bad date lists, isn’t high, drunk and she doesn’t have mental health issues. A light coloured sedan pulls up —work would be slow if she turned down every light coloured sedan — inside is a man with dark hair in a hat and there are cops around the corner and her rent is past due. The odds are slim it’s the guy on the list, but he could have shaved his moustache and if she was able to speak to him for a few moments she’d maybe see his teeth. Imagine how much more difficult it would be for someone who is high/drunk or who has mental health issues which slow mental processing.

Additionally, being unable to converse about rates before entering into an enclosed space increases the risk of disagreement over what services are offered and what the rates are, and an argument can easily escalate to violence, even if that was not the original intent. True, it’s easy to say that all one wants is a covered blowjob and $50 is fine, and either not have that, or not pay-up once the worker is in the vehicle, but again, one learns to read intent. Agreeing to a sexual act under certain terms, and then being forced to engage in a different act, or under different terms, or to only be partial paid, or not paid at all, makes it a form of rape and theft, even if violence is not involved.

I don’t have enough information on the future of the living off the avails or bodyguard issue, to comment much. Entirely abolished, they could open the doors to pimps, so they would need to reworded with that in mind. Domestic partners can sometimes become a passive form of pimp —the sort who does no work in procuring clients or enforcing payment and good client behaviour, but still takes a large portion of the earnings and might be physically or verbally abusive— and I would like to see something on that issue. Let’s say that a sex worker meets gets involved with someone and they move in together. If they are legally common law or married, and only the sex worker is working while the other partner is chronically unemployed, the other partner might be able to make a legal claim, should they split up, that they are entitled to a portion of ‘shared assets,’ and potentially, financial support, thereby forcing the sex worker to work on their behalf. I don’t see that sort of case ever going to court because living off the avails is illegal, but should it be decriminalized, the matter might well come up as it’s a shockingly common scenario, even among mid and upper level workers.

Let me be clear that on the whole, the ruling is still a positive, being able to hire security and work indoors does absolutely aid sex workers in terms of their personal security, it’s just not enough, and it does very little to help those most in need and most at risk of prosecution. Many who are on the street might not live in conditions conducive to having clients over, such as having small children or being subject to eviction should they bring a client home. Many are simply unable to maintain something we take for granted such as be able to hang on to a cell phone or have access to a computer to advertise online. Even if one had a location, without a computer, or a smartphone (which usually requires a contract and either decent credit or a deposit), it is still likely that they might have to solicit business on the street, which would still put them at risk of being criminally penalized or at great risk of a bad date.


Thanks T!

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  1. ischemgeek says

    In my fantasy-land, prostitution and drug use would both be decriminalized entirely and treated as regulated occupation and non-criminal public health issue with similar education, resources and funds available as for tobacco and alcohol use, respectively.

    An addict does not deserve to go to jail because they need a fix. And a recreational user who is not an addict does not deserve to go to jail because they wanted something more potent than alcohol or tobacco. And some kid who’s just curious does not deserve to go to jail because curiosity over-rode good judgement in the current legal climate about the issue.

    And I say this as the closest thing to a tee-totaler you’ll find without the actual never-drink-ever bit: I’m enough of a lightweight that two drinks gets me slurring, I don’t smoke because I had daily asthma attacks back when my mother was still a smoker and have no desire to revisit the feeling, and I’m too afraid of needles, asthmatic, and on too many medications to want to risk any other drugs. My worst vice as far as mind-altering substances go is drinking too much coffee (I looove my coffee – I have a 24fl oz cup at home with 1 <3 Coffee written on the side of it. And I use it.). Oh noes.

  2. says

    One of the things I have learned since coming to Vancouver is that ‘decriminalization’ is not, in fact, a single thing. There are a whole bunch of paths toward drug decriminalization, and not all of them are good ideas. The WHO published what I think is a pretty smart phase-by-phase plan for decriminalization, but simply waving a magic wand and saying “cannabis decriminalus” will have serious problems.

  3. julian says

    Friends that provide insightful and informed opinions on sensitive topics like prostitution… Where can I get me some of that?

    I wonder how much of the failure for laws to address the most at risk groups comes from ignorant law makers not fully understanding the implications of what they’ve just signed. Of course compromise and such are moving factors but part of me can’t help but feel that one of those good intentions allies just couldn’t see what their signature meant to someone on the ground.

    Anyway, I’m happy to see any amount of steps in the right direction.

    It is, of course, entirely possible to hide one’s intentions, but let’s not forget the existence of bad date lists circulated by advocates and workers.

    This reminded me of something brought up at Greta’s blog some months ago when the conversation turned to sex workers. Just how big of an issue will discrimination be should prostitution become legal taxable work?

    Obviously in the above scenario the circumstances demand caution. It’s a question of safety and it isn’t as if the worker is basing their hesitation on race or ethnicity. There’s a description of someone who poses a clear threat to anyone they pick up.

    But what about more well off sex workers sending away clients a of particular ethnicity? How does the right to refuse sex for any reason come into play when it’s another commodity being sold and denied on the basis of race or gender? (Personally, because of the damage rape does to someone, I’m perfectly fine with a prostitute refusing for whatever reason they please.)

    Anyway, that’s off topi. Thank you for the read.

  4. Johnny Vector says

    Would you care to elaborate on that? I mean, in a post. I can’t actually think of significant downsides to just declaring marijuana legal. OTOH, you’ve been right enough times since I started reading your stuff that I’m curious. (Or did you just use “cannabis” as a clever Latin word, and you were referring to total decrim of all drugs? In which case sure.)

  5. chrisj says

    Can I second Johnny’s request for a post on the subject (or pointers to somewhere else if you think that’s more appropriate)?

  6. Annick says

    Great post, as usual. Thank you.
    You know, now I’m picturing sex workers wearing T-shirts with QR codes. They can text their negotiations while the Johns wait in their cars across the street, passer-bys can’t read the advert, phone cameras allow a good look at the client, and the transaction terms can even be tracked.

    (Anyone know how I can change my creepy little avatar…?)

  7. Sierra says

    (Recently delurked. Hi!)

    Actually, the living off the avails and the bawdy house laws haven’t been entirely struck down. Since a bawdy house refers to more than just prostitution, only the word prostitution has been struck from the law (and it doesn’t go into effect for another year). A phrase like “in an exploitative situation” was added to the living off the avails law, in an attempt to keep harmful relationships criminalized. We’ll see how well that works.

    Personally, I’m upset that the law which causes the most harm to the most vulnerable sex workers wasn’t struck down by the Ontario Court of Appeal.

  8. Tex says

    I was wondering what your friends idea of the best possible decriminalization law would be. What about if cities were able to designate Red Light districts where between certian hours prostitutes were allowed to negotiate in the open? Or like in Mexico it was legal to set up “Boys Towns” outside of the city.

  9. Interrobang says

    With any luck, this’ll stop the next Robert Pickton before he kills ten, instead of fifty. And yes, at this point, I’m that cynical…

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