Prostitution law puts sex trade workers at risk, advocate says

The government insisted the law would make sex work safer. Four years later in Edmonton, the city where the legislation has been most keenly enforced, advocates say it has only made things more unsafe for sex workers.

Edmonton escort says sex workers may put themselves 'in peril' to accommodate the client

A woman holds a sign in support of sex workers and their rights at a rally in 2013, shortly after Canada's Supreme Court struck down prostitution laws. Parliament introduced its new prostitution law, Bill C-36, the following year. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

A licensed escort in Edmonton says a federal law designed to make sex work safer has had the opposite effect.

"The federal law has it wrong," said Sarah Dane, who has been working in Edmonton for the past decade. CBC News has agreed to protect her identity with a pseudonym.

"[The clients] are the one taking the risk, so they feel like they're the one calling the shots," Dane said.

"It means there's fewer dollars that we're all trying to get. It means we're going to put ourselves in peril to accommodate the client."

An outreach worker who regularly counsels Edmonton sex-trade workers agrees with Dane.

"The law didn't [provide] any benefits to any of the girls," said Kari Thomason, social worker with Mé​tis Child and Family Services.

Bill C-36 became law in 2014, a year after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country's existing anti-prostitution laws as unconstitutional.

As police crack down on johns, advocates say it's making it more dangerous for street workers. 1:31

When it brought in Bill C-36, Stephen Harper's Conservative government insisted that by shifting the bulk of criminal risk from sex worker to customer, demand would wane without driving sex workers further underground.

Peter MacKay, the justice minister at the time, suggested it could even empower women to report abusive clients.

But four years later in Edmonton, the city where the legislation has been most keenly enforced, advocates say it has only made things more unsafe for sex workers.

The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act made it illegal to purchase sex, without criminalizing people who sell their own sexual services.

Edmonton accounts for 40 per cent of Canada's charges 

Last year, Edmonton police charged more people for purchasing sex than anywhere else in the country. Edmonton accounted for more than 40 per cent of charges nationwide, according to Statistics Canada data.

There were 271 charges in Edmonton in 2017, more than double the 114 recorded in Winnipeg, which was second on the list.

Edmonton police put the number of arrests higher, at 295.

A vast majority of offenders were directed to a program for sex-trade offenders, said Staff Sgt. Dale Johnson, head of the human trafficking and exploitation unit with the Edmonton police.

Sex-trade offenders without violent criminal histories spend a day hearing from survivors of sexual exploitation and their families.

Former Justice Minister Peter MacKay insisted Bill C-36 would protect sex workers, even as the government intended to end the sex trade. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

They pay a $750 fee, increased from $500 earlier this year, which goes toward the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation, an advocacy group that runs the day-long session and provides support for people leaving the sex trade.

The primary focus is education, Johnson said, but the law is still clear.

"Buying sex is illegal, so the police do have a role there to ensure that activity is not just blindly ignored," Johnson said. "It is our ambition to identify the traffickers and the exploiters because they are the ones doing the greatest harm."

More than half of the arrests in 2017 came from online sting operations, according to a breakdown provided by Edmonton police.

'That limits out choices and puts us at risk'

Dane, the escort, said stings have made clients increasingly skeptical of web-based advertising and sharing their identity with a sex worker. Advertising, in particular, can be an important way to set prices and boundaries.

With fewer opportunities to screen clients and set boundaries, she said there have been more requests for unsafe sex and requests to meet in risky locations, such as a client's car, or her own home.

"If that's what it's going to take to get that deal, some of us are going to do that," she said.

"When they get hungry, they may do services that they might not otherwise want to do. And that limits our choices and it puts us at risk."

More unreported bad dates

The relationship between the human trafficking unit and street-level sex workers has also deteriorated under the 2014 legislation, according to Thomason.

She has spent more than a decade doing outreach work with street sex workers, driving through Edmonton up to six times a week.

Thomason gives out sandwiches, juice boxes, condoms and counselling advice as she stops to talk with some of the 80 sex workers she estimates work in Edmonton year-round.

Staff Sgt. Dale Johnson, head of the human trafficking unit, said targeting demand in the sex trade is one way of dealing with a larger problem of human trafficking. (David Bajer/CBC)

As more attention is directed at johns, she said, there's less willingness among members of the human trafficking unit to connect with sex workers directly. As a result, sex workers are less willing to report bad dates to the police, Thomason said.

"There's a lack of relationship building on the streets between our unit and the sex trade workers, there's a lot of distrust again," she said.

"Having to rebuild that is what we need to do, but our girls are more at risk."

The women who are being exploited are particularly vulnerable under this enforcement environment, since a pimp will keep demanding money even if there are fewer clients on the street.

Other street-level workers are having to work longer hours, Thomason said, in some cases accepting clients they may have otherwise turned away.

"By targeting the demand, you're taking away some of their survival money," she said.

"They're going to have to be out there a lot longer, be away from their kids a lot longer . . . we're putting them more at risk of getting bad dates."

Some supporters of the law remain convinced strong enforcement is still the right approach.

Reducing demand, creating alternatives? 

JoAnn McCartney, a former Edmonton police detective with the human trafficking unit, now works as a counsellor. Many of her clients are women who have left the sex trade after facing conditions of sexual exploitation and violence.

"Those that are still in denial and still really thinking that this is the thing for them, yes, they feel hard done by," McCartney said. "But in the long run, that's the intent of the government … to reduce demand so it's not just everywhere.

"It's all about reducing demand, and offering alternatives to the people who are supplying the service."

Kari Thomason, social worker with Metis Child and Family Services, said the law only hurts street sex workers.

Cecilia Benoit, a sociology professor at the University of Victoria, said the idea that targeting demand would push sex workers to find other work or seek support appeared unrealistic.

Benoit led a survey of more than 200 sex workers across Canada that found 70 per cent of sex workers were satisfied with their jobs.

The research, presented to senators as they studied Bill C-36 in 2014, also found that a majority of respondents didn't see themselves as victims.

"The majority do a lot better economically in the industry than they do in other jobs, so I think it's a little naive to think they're just going to give up sex work," Benoit said.

'We're just trying to make a living' 

After working for 10 years as an escort,  Dane said she just wants to be able to work without judgment and without the extra pressures the law has brought. 

"It would be nice if our voices were heard. It would be nice if sex work was decriminalized," she said. "We're just trying to make a living like everyone else is."

Kari Thomason drives through Edmonton as often as six times a week, offering support to street sex workers. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

The number of arrests made last year will end up being an anomaly, according to Johnson, as the human trafficking unit directs more resources to targeting people trying to purchase sex from minors.

As of Sept. 24, Edmonton police had arrested 106 people this year for purchasing sex and expect the number will rise to around 150 by year's end.

"I don't know if it's sustainable for our small unit to maintain that sort of pressure on that one portion of our mandate," Johnson said.