Canada Has Declared War On Sex Workers — And The U.S. Is Close Behind

For over a decade, Andrew Sorfleet has worked in the sex industry. He’s served as an escort and a masseur in cities across Canada, the U.S. and the Netherlands, and as an erotic model for various magazines and websites. He owned and operated Atlas Male Escorts in Toronto, has published numerous papers and given talks on the laws and politics of sex work and is now the president of the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association, Canada’s first legally registered sex worker labour association.

So he couldn’t believe it when he found out that the Canadian government consulted zero sex workers when drafting Bill C-36, a new piece of legislation attempting to shut down an industry that has over 150 years in Canada, according to Sorfleet.

Andrew Sorfleet
Andrew Sorfleet

Coming on the heels of a series of physical and sexual assaults on sex workers in Vancouver, Newfoundland and Toronto, Bill C-36 threatens the safety of sex workers and their families, and takes away the ability for sex workers communicate, advertise and negotiate with clients of all sorts, whether a bodyguard, photographer or client.

And the legislation in Canada isn’t isolated. Similar laws in the U.S. threaten the safety, housing and dignity of sex workers — and queers, trans women, and people of color will be the ones most at risk.

“If you’re going to take away my ability to work, I want to know what the compensation is,” says Sorfleet,

For a while a landmark 2013 ruling in the eponymous Bedford Case seemed a beacon of hope for sex workers’ rights in Canda. The case began in 2007 when three Ontario sex workers — Terri Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott — asked the Supreme Court to strike down three Criminal Code provisions that violated sex workers’s constitutional right to “security of the person.”

Those three provisions basically forbade keeping or being found in a “common bawdy house,” living on the avails (funds) of prostitution and communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution. The court found all three unconstitutional and “overbroad”. The laws prevented sex workers from screening clients, negotiating the terms of a date (including whether or not to use condoms) as well as hiring drivers, security guards or working indoors.

The Supreme Court unanimously agreed that by December 2014, those parts of the law would no longer be in effect. Years of advocacy and activism by sex workers, for sex workers had paid off — or so it seemed.

It’s now November 2014, and things have only gotten worse for sex workers in Canada and their neighbors in the States. Thanks to Canadian Minister of Justice Peter MacKay and his friends in the Conservative (and seemingly Puritanical) federal government, a bill which essentially negates the Bedford ruling passed in Canadian parliament last month.

Bill C-36 — infuriatingly titled the “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” — contains numerous provisions which criminalize the kinds of safety measures sex workers need and advocated for with the Bedford case.

While MacKay insists that the bill seeks to protect sex workers, he’s been more than clear about his ultimate goal:

“Let us be clear about Bill C-36’s ultimate objective: that is to reduce the demand for prostitution with a view towards discouraging entry into it, deterring participation in it and ultimately abolishing it to greatest extent possible.”

In a direct counter to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Bill C-36 introduces a new set of constrictions that basically eradicate the possibility of safe, consensual sex work entirely.

(image via Steve Rhodes)
(image via Steve Rhodes)

According to the bill, everyone who communicates anywhere for the purposes of prostitution can be imprisoned for a minimum of five years. If that communication (or sex work itself) happens in a public place where anyone under the age of 18 might be present, there’s an added fine of $2000. And to top it all off, anyone who receives “a financial or other material benefit, knowing that it is obtained by or derived directly or indirectly” from sex work can be imprisoned for 10 years.

Behind the legalese, what’s happening is that Bill C-36 criminalizes anyone who purchases sex, and it also threatens the ability of sex workers to financially support themselves and their families.

Thanks to a particularly nasty clause of the bill, even those deemed to be “habitually in the company” of sex workers can get penalized. According to a primer on the law from PIVOT (a legal advocacy network in Vancouver), children, partners and roommates are off the hook, but no such luck for safe, long-standing sex workers’ clients.

Terri Jean Bedford, sex work, workers, Canada, law
Terri Jean Bedford

In response to this backwards step, Terri Jean Bedford — the applicant in the landmark 2013 case — has threatened to release the names of hypocritical politicians who’ve accessed sex worker services in the past and yet still support Bill C-36. She’s currently consulting with sex worker communities to decide whether or not to do it.

In the U.S. a similar trend is emerging. Possibly inspired by their northern neighbors’ patriarchy, a new series of “nuisance” laws in Oakland, California makes it possible for anyone suspected of sex work to be evicted, along with anyone suspected of gambling or storing ammunition.

Obviously the laws themselves are more than a mere nuisance and will criminalize a vast number of people, with especially dire consequences for Oakland’s already criminalized sex workers. And for ones who are also queer, trans and people of color — all populations that face higher rates of unemployment, poverty and homelessness — such laws would be especially catastrophic.

At the St. James Infirmary, a clinic run by sex workers for sex workers in the Bay Area, 30 percent of sex workers accessing services in 2002 already lived with housing insecurity. In 2014, after the feds shut down the popular sex work advertising/networking site Myredbook (and raided the home of two people suspected of running it), many Californians had their livelihood taken away. Now Oakland’s nuisance laws ensure they’ll possibly lose their homes too and go into the streets seeking both work and shelter.

It’s almost impossible to tell how devastating Bill C-36 will be for Two-Spirit women, queer Indigenous moms and parents doing outdoor sex work in Canada. As it is, they’re far more likely to contract HIV and have their children taken away by social services. Similarly, LGBTQ youth and trans* people who are already homeless will no longer have sex work as a economic survival strategy once Bill C-36 receives Royal Assent.

Stats on queer sex workers are so hard to come by, according to Katrina Pacey the executive director at PIVOT, because “In order to increase our knowledge and understanding of the realities of LGBT2IQ sex workers, sex workers from these communities must be engaged in research design, ethical standards and implementation of studies.” Faced with further stigma and criminalization, it’s going to be even harder for statistics-generating service providers to even reach them.

(Image via Steve Rhodes)
(Image via Steve Rhodes)

Two things are clear about the North America legislation. First, governments are trying vainly to resurrect an outdated, patriarchal view of prostitution where all sex workers are victimized women who need to be saved from trafficking and their sex-starved, predatory male clients. Second, these laws seek to economically cripple and legally erase sex workers who are queer, trans, indigenous and people of color from all civic participation and therefore history.

It remains to be seen if Bill C-36 will be challenged in the Supreme Court like the Bedford case, and if this legislation will continue to be imported to other cities in the U.S.. Continuing to treat sex work like a crime rather than focusing on the violence perpetuated by such new regulations won’t “protect our communities” and eliminate “nuisances.” They’ll just perpetuate racist, sexist, heteronormative and transphobic norms that harm everyone, and even kill some of the folks who already get assaulted in streets and prisons for the crime of consensual sex.