Prostitution laws: 7 voices from the field

MPs are this week studying the government's proposed changes to Canadian prostitution laws. Here are seven voices from the people who work with or around sex workers regularly and what they told lawmakers.

Former sex workers, advocates, lawyers tell their stories to MPs on justice committee this week

Katarina MacLeod spoke to MPs about her experience surviving domestic human trafficking and Bill C-36, the government's proposed changes to prostitution laws. (CBC)

MPs are this week studying the government's proposed changes to Canadian prostitution laws. Here are seven voices from the people who work with or around sex workers regularly and what they told lawmakers.

1. Casandra Diamond, BridgeNorth

Diamond told MPs that she just finished a year working specifically with trafficked people.

"I can't walk into a group home in Canada where [there aren't] children, and these are 14-, 15-, 16-year-old children, whom are being recruited out of there by low-level, small organized gangs and things like this. And in fact these girls are now going in using friending tactics. To go in and get their friends to help them know, 'oh, you can just make a little bit of extra money, you can do this, do that, it's not so bad,'" she said.

"I'm seeing younger and younger persons entering the sex trade."

2. Robyn Maynard, Stella

Maynard spoke on behalf of a Montreal organization that supports decriminalizing sex work.

"It's fine for any member of Parliament, any person living in Canada, to have the right to their own personal opinion on the morality of the sex industry, whether or not we think it should exist, what we think that it means, but imposing morality at the cost of human lives is not something that is acceptable. And what is the cost of passing laws trying to abolish the sex industry? The cost is extremely dangerous. Even if we look at trying to abolish what we see as a social harm, the actual physical harms of people's physical safety and their actual lives are endangered by these laws that try to abolish the sex industry," Maynard said.

3. Katarina MacLeod, Rising Angels

One debate the committee keeps returning to is whether some women choose prostitution as a profession.

MacLeod survived domestic human trafficking and founded Rising Angels to help women leave the sex trade. She says she was 21 years old when she became a prostitute, recruited by a woman who owned a massage parlour at a support group for women who were abused.

"At the time I believed I was making a free and conscious decision, but now on the other side of it I realize that because of my life prior to entering the sex trade, that just wasn't the case. I had been sexually abused as a child and abused by many men as a young woman — something that clouded my judgment and ability to make healthy choices," she told MPs.

"I know there are some who claim that this is a choice for them to prostitute. I get that. Five years ago I would have said the same thing. Because my prostitution was my livelihood, it was my normal. It was all I knew and I felt I could not do any better. If I had admitted to myself or anyone else what I was doing was wrong, and that it was destroying me, the shame would have taken over and I would not have been able to do what I felt I needed to do to feed myself and my kids."

4. Teresa Edwards, Native Women's Association of Canada

Edwards also addressed whether the sex trade is a legitimate industry that some workers choose.

"If we were to look at this as a legitimate job and we were to have job fairs at universities, I highly doubt this would be a successful job fair booth that we would want to see as options for our children... I would not want to see it legitimized in any way," she said.

"We're not talking moral. We're talking about power indifference here. We already know there's a high rate of missing and murdered native women but for the fact that they're targeted for their race and their gender because they're seen by society as being devalued and disposable. If society isn't caring about missing and murdered [aboriginal women], how are they going to possibly care about native women who are in prostitution and how do these women have real choices?"

5. Megan Walker, London Abused Women's Centre

Many of the witnesses welcomed the government's promised $20 million over five years, but said it wouldn't go very far. One witness on Monday referred to the need for everything from rape crisis centres to affordable housing. Walker outlined on Tuesday some of the other costs and said her organization gets some of its $850,000 in annual funding from partners in the community.

"As I stated earlier, we serve about 3,300 women. We have a staff of 11. So we're very busy, as you can imagine, serving that number of people. And of course our salaries, nobody complains because nobody does our work because it's a job at our place. It's really a passion. But there's rent and overhead, and we pay the transportation costs of the women who come to see us, we make sure they have food when they come to see us. 

"But it is expensive to provide these services. And what we want to make sure is that women in prostitution have access to long-term service. They suffer incredible trauma. It's not a situation where they can come in for only six weeks. This is long-term service that we are ensuring they are engaged in."

6. Kerry Porth, Pivot Legal Society

Porth is the chair of Pivot's board of directors and a former sex worker. She described in her opening statement to MPs the results of a peer-reviewed study on the effects of criminalizing prostitution. Her remarks echoed a number of the concerns raised by critics of the bill.

"When either party to a sex work transaction is criminalized, sex work continues to be pushed underground into a shadowy world where exploitation and violence can and do occur. Sex workers who participated in the study report that when police target their clients, they must take steps to avoid detection by law enforcement, such as working in areas that are darkly lit and under-populated where they face risks due to their isolation," Porth said.

"Clients who are now nervous and stressed by the fear of police pressure workers to get into their vehicle quickly or to follow their vehicle into a dark alley before negotiating the terms of the transaction. Rushing negotiations limits the sex worker's opportunity to assess the potential client for signs of intoxication, to look for weapons or restraint devices or to check a bad date sheet.

"Suggesting that these sort of precautions will not prevent any violence is the same as saying to women all across Canada that all the safety precautions that they take will not prevent violence."

7. Rick Hanson, Calgary chief of police

"There's a study done by one of the NFPs, not-for-profit agencies, in town and they deal with this issue [of entry age]. They found the average age for young girls entering into prostitution is 13. Thirteen years of age," said Hanson, who's been a police officer for nearly 40 years.

He compared changing attitudes about sex work to changing attitudes about family violence.

"Up to about 15 years ago, we didn't do a good job in regard to family violence and domestic violence because we had this attitude that goes back many years that, if a woman's in a situation where there's family violence, she's choosing to be there... That wasn't the case then with family violence and domestic violence, and it took us to go a long way on the spectrum to acknowledge that it's a complicated issue that requires the application of the law on the abuser where appropriate, but more importantly, the support systems to support the victim where appropriate, and the victim and the family."

Conservative MP Joy Smith asked Hanson whether making it illegal to buy sex would help.

"Absolutely. Because unfortunately it's a wink-wink-nudge-nudge situation. Young men are growing up to think that it's a rite of passage to solicit a prostitute and do whatever you want to her because you're paying for it. And it's a wink-wink-nudge-nudge, it's really OK, and if you get caught, well, you know what, the consequences — none of them expect to get caught. So it's [about] changing attitudes."


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