Street prostitution arrests rose 2000 per cent between 1985 and 1986, according to an analysis of national crime data, and some experts fear that if Bill C-36 becomes law, it could set back prostitution to that time.
Experts predict we could see a similar rise in prostitution arrests if the bill is passed, bringing us back to a time when street workers were fleeing underground and putting themselves in danger in order to avoid arrest.
They are concerned that this new legislation, proposed by Justice Minister Peter MacKay, will have that same effect and put sex workers at risk.
The new prostitution control measure that came into effect in 1985 caused a drastic rise in arrests. While pre-1985 laws prohibited any soliciting of clients, the 1985 law criminalized any communication in a public place for the purpose of buying or selling sexual services. Similarly, Bill C-36 contains a communication offence.
The main difference between today’s proposed law and the 1985 law is that Bill C-36 targets clients only; If clients are found communicating for the purpose of sexual services they can be arrested. Sex workers can only be arrested if they are found doing the same close to a school, day care or place of worship.
Janine Benedet, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, said the 1985 communication law was effective because for the first time, it targeted customers as well as sex workers. But she said clients didn’t take the brunt of enforcement. “It allowed the police to place all their attention on street prostitution and the most marginalized women, women who were disproportionately aboriginal who were more likely to be heavily addicted to drugs,” said Benedet. “This kind of fit in the idea that so long as prostitution was out of sight, it wasn’t a problem, but really all that does is push the abuses out of public view.” Some experts predict that if Bill-C36 is passed, the law will have the same effect as the 1985 legislation.
Katrina Pacey, the litigation director of the Pivot Legal Society thinks sex workers will be moving farther away from city streets and into industrialized areas. “Street based workers will be forced to work in more dangerous circumstances and take less time to screen clients and have less time to negotiate transaction because they will be afraid of being caught by police or their clients being caught by police.” The government argues that the new law will protect sex workers by targeting those who buy sexual services. According to MacKay, his legislation – slated to become law in December – will reduce demand for prostitution and eventually abolish it, marking a “fundamental shift towards the treatment of prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation.”
Frances Shaver, an expert who has been researching the sex industry for 20 years said sex workers need to make a living and will do whatever they can to protect their clients from arrest. Shaver said this would then put sex workers in more isolated and dangerous situations, similar to the 1985 communicating law. “They have to go to where the clients aren’t going to get arrested which means into darker corners,” she said. “Organized crime might get involved and might set up some presumably safe way for the clients to meet with the street basis worker in a way in which they can’t get arrested.” Shaver believes Canada doesn’t need any more laws. “What we need are better social programs and better education programs.” Other laws like sexual and physical assault can protect sex workers rights, she said.
Mackay tabled Bill C-36 in June in response to a December 2013 Supreme Court of Canada decision known as Bedford, that found three of Canada’s prostitution laws unconstitutional. Those rules penalized sex workers and were deemed to violate Section 7 of the charter, which guarantees security of the person. Benedet said she supports Bill C-36 and thinks the law fundamentally treats prostitution as a form of sexual exploitation. “I think that the law does something very important in re-classifying the purchase of sex as an offence against the person,” she said. “It creates a framework in which we can now start to lobby for kinds of social supports that women need to avoid to resort to prostitution.” The government has pledged $20-million over five years to help sex workers get out of the trade. Although, historically the 1985 communication law allowed police officers to crack down on street prostitution, Benedet said she is still worried that when Bill C-36 is passed the most vulnerable women will be targeted. For details on Bill C-36: