The federal government’s proposed prostitution legislation would create an even greater climate of violence and fear for sex workers and push the industry further underground, a Hamilton-based advocate says.
The Conservatives say the bill will crack down on abusive pimps and johns, but Mz. Scream — a former dominatrix who sits on the board of directors of local sex worker support and advocacy group Big Suzies — says it will only further harm sex workers. She has asked that CBC use her professional pseudonym and not her real name.
“It’s completely archaic,” Scream said. “When the government thinks it can control what consenting adults can or can’t do — that’s a problem.”
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Bill C-36 — dubbed the protection of communities and exploited persons act — would make it illegal to sell sexual services in any public spaces where people under the age of 18 “could be” present. Offenders could face a maximum of five years in prison.
'Not everyone working is a victim and not all clients are rapists.' - Mz. Scream, sex worker advocate
The proposed legislation introduced Wednesday stems from a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in December, which found the country's current prostitution laws unconstitutional. But in many ways, the new bill is even more all encompassing.
Vast majority of sex workers are victims: MacKay
Justice Minister Peter MacKay told a news conference in the House of Commons that the bill would target johns and the pimps who sell and profit from prostitution, rather than sex workers themselves.
"The bill recognizes that the vast majority of those who sell sexual services do not do so by choice. We view the vast majority of those involved in selling sexual services as victims," MacKay said. He did admit that frontline sex workers could face prosecution if they sell services in a public space where minors “could be” present.
"They would face fines in most instances," MacKay said. The bill would criminalize the advertising of sexual services in print or online, with offenders facing a maximum prison term of five years.
Scream argues that most people in the sex trade are consenting adults and not victims.
“Not everyone working is a victim and not all clients are rapists,” she said. “And minors ‘could be’ present just about anywhere.”
Removing a sex worker’s ability to screen clients is one of the most dangerous parts of the bill for sex workers, Scream says. Ideally, a sex worker would be able to screen a client either in person, by phone, or online to assess the risk of taking him or her on. A frank discussion can then also take place about the client’s expectations and what the sex worker is willing to do, she says.
“Is he on drugs? Is he agitated? Does he have a weapon? Those kinds of questions,” Scream said.
But if the ability to speak about those things in public is stymied, sex workers end up more likely to face violence from angry clients. “They’re targeting the most vulnerable people who work on the street.”
Criminalization of prostitution
The new bill comes just two days after the Justice Department released the results of an online consultation that showed two-thirds of the more than 31,000 respondents said selling sex should not be an offence.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in December to strike down key provisions on prostitution including laws prohibiting brothels, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating in public with clients, saying the laws were too broad and "grossly disproportionate."
The Supreme Court gave the federal government one year to come up with new legislation.
Katrina Pacey, a lawyer for Pivot Legal Society, an intervenor in the case to reform the country's anti-prostitution laws, has concerns about the proposed legislation.
"This is in fact full criminalization of prostitution ... which is going to result in sex workers going to jail."
"The minister has found various ways to limit all of the safe ways for sex-trade work," Pacey said.
An 'anti-porn' bill
Scream also has concerns that Bill C-36 contains sections that would place limits on the porn, webcam sex and adult entertainment industries in general. Section 164 contains provisions that would give a judge the power to seize recordings that are “voyeuristic,” “obscene” or relate to child pornography.
“Of course nobody agrees with child pornography, but this is trying to abolish all voyeuristic recordings,” Scream said. “It’s pretty much an anti-porn, anti-sex industry, anti-adult entertainment bill.”
McKay also pledged to provide $20 million to fund programs to help sex workers get out of prostitution — a move Scream also opposes.”
“That money will just create jobs for people based on the idea that all women in the industry are being abused.”
She advocated more resources be funnelled into harm reduction and that Canadian lawmakers model new legislation on New Zealand, where prostitution is legal and the sex industry operates under employment and public health laws.
A national day of action to protest the bill is planned for June 14.