Failure to Act: National Sex Worker Rights’ Groups Respond
to Parliamentary Report on Sex Work Laws
June 27, 2022 - Last week, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights tabled its report Preventing Harm in the Sex Industry: A Review of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA). The Committee was mandated by Parliament to conduct a review of PCEPA five years after its implementation in 2014. Seven years after receiving this mandate, the Committee finally held a series of hearings inviting to the table some sex workers, some allies, as well as those ideologically dedicated to the eradication of sex work and who do not work with sex workers. While certain recommendations in the report address issues of concern to sex workers, the report has serious and dangerous shortcomings: namely its failure to break from Canada’s ongoing use of criminalization as the primary tool for addressing sex work at the expense of sex workers’ safety, autonomy and equality. The report falls short of recommending action to end the profound harms of criminalizing sex work and the ways that ongoing criminalization encourages law enforcement presence in the lives of those most marginalized. The Committee’s focus on creating even more criminal laws will only maintain this law enforcement presence, rather than addressing the issues that cause violence and exploitation against sex workers.
We commend the Committee for “recognizing that the health and safety of those involved in sex work is made more difficult by the framework set out by PCEPA” and “acknowledging that…the Act causes serious harm to those engaged in sex work by making the work more dangerous” (Recommendation 2, Committee report). We are equally pleased to see the Committee recommend the repeal of sections 213 and 286.4 of the Criminal Code (criminalizing public communication and advertising sexual services, Recommendation 3, Committee report) as well as prohibitions on sex work in sections 183 (1)(b.1), 196.1(A), 200(3)(G.1) and 203(2)(a) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations, which put migrant sex workers at elevated risk of violence and other danger by preventing them from reporting these incidents without fear of deportation (Recommendation 10, Committee Report). Lastly, we commend the Committee for recognizing the important role of sex worker-led organizations in “providing non-judgemental and trauma-informed services” to our communities, and recommending the provision of “additional services to sex workers” (Recommendation 16, Committee Report).
The report, however, falls short of recommending action to end the profound harms of criminalizing sex work and the ways that ongoing criminalization encourages law enforcement presence in the lives of those most marginalized. The Committee’s focus on creating even more criminal laws will only maintain this law enforcement presence, rather than addressing the issues that cause violence and exploitation against sex workers.
Exploitation in the sex industry flourishes when criminalization prevents sex workers from improving labour conditions, and reporting violence and exploitation. Requiring more criminalization to address exploitation before repealing the sex work offences (Recommendation 6 and 7) merely increases the risk of exploitation against sex workers. We reject the idea of new Criminal Code amendments as a solution; there are ample existing provisions that can be used to address violence and exploitation, including but not limited to criminal prohibitions against assault, sexual assault, theft, robbery, kidnapping and forcible confinement, extortion, intimidation, criminal harassment, and uttering threats of physical harm. Sex workers should not have to wait until tangentially related issues of coercive control and human trafficking, which happen primarily outside of the sex industry, are resolved before getting access to human rights protections.
Sex workers and sex worker rights groups across the country uniformly testified during the Committee hearings, that the criminal sanctions against sex work must be repealed in order to address exploitation in the sex industry. Alliance member groups Butterfly and SWAN Vancouver also provided insight into how to address exploitation experienced by migrant sex workers, and this Committee and the Government of Canada should take direction from those most affected by sex work prohibitions (Recommendation 11, Committee report).
The report fails to acknowledge the need to immediately remove law enforcement from the lives of the most marginalized sex workers. Police presence is antagonistic and far from helpful. Encouraging “best practices for building trust” (Recommendation 8) with police while simultaneously studying how to encourage “more consistent application” of PCEPA (Recommendation 9) is contradictory, and should not be a priority for this government. Rather, this government should prioritize removing police from sex workers’ lives due to the dangers police and their mandate of sex work eradication cause, as per sex workers and sex worker activists’ testimony before the hearing. Sex worker rights groups also presented clear evidence of the harms that police cause to sex workers when mandated to arrest clients and third parties.
Most glaringly, despite clearly recognizing that the laws are harmful and overbroad - and therefore violating our Charter rights - the report falls short of recognizing the urgency of full decriminalization of sex work. Troublingly, the Committee does not recommend the repeal of s. 286.1, which criminalizes the purchase of sexual services and is the provision upon which the PCEPA “end demand” framework lies. The Committee also fails to recommend the removal of s. 286.2 and s. 286.3, which criminalize third party involvement in the work of sex workers – which sex workers across the country testified as being part of the most harmful elements of criminalization. As long as any facet of sex work is criminalized, sex workers who are most marginalized are made vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Only by removing the entire criminal framework for sex work can law enforcement meaningfully identify and pursue exploitation against sex workers.
We look forward to the promise put forward by the first recommendation of this Committee to “extensively consult” people most impacted – people who are selling and exchanging sexual services – before any additional and harmful legislation is created that will cause further harms to sex workers across the country. These extensive consults must be truly meaningful and not reproduce the same harms we often see when sex workers are consulted. Sex workers have already published countless documents, and ample empirical evidence exists regarding the harms of the law and what is needed instead. Our Recommendations for Sex Work Law Reform in Canada are the result of extensive consultations with sex workers across the country and our ongoing constitutional challenge to the PCEPA already includes several thousand pages of evidence. We are far past the time to call for studies and consultation. Parliament now has access to all the necessary information required to fully repeal the PCEPA.
The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform is a group of 25 sex worker rights groups across the country working together for safer and healthier communities and sex workers’ rights. Many of our members testified to the harms of PCEPA before this Committee.
For interviews with the Alliance or one of our member groups contact: Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform firstname.lastname@example.org or 514.916.2598
Alliance member organizations include: Action santé travesti(e)s et transsexuel(le)s du Québec (ASTT(e)Q) (Montreal); ANSWERS Society (Edmonton); BC Coalition of Experiential Communities (BCCEW); Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Work Support Network (Toronto); HIV Legal Network; Émissaire (Longueuil); Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers’ Action Project; Maggie’s Indigenous Sex Work Drum Group; PEERS Victoria; Projet L.U.N.E. (Québec); Prostitutes Involved Empowered Cogent Edmonton (PIECE) (Edmonton); PACE Society (Vancouver); Rézo, projet travailleurs du sexe (Montreal); Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) (St John’s); SafeSpace (London); Sex Workers’ Action Program Hamilton (SWAPH); Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC); Sex Workers’ Action Network of Waterloo Region (SWAN Waterloo); Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition (SWWAC); Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) (Vancouver); Shift Calgary, HIV Community Link; Stella, l’amie de Maimie (Montreal); SWANS Sudbury; SWAN Vancouver; and SWAP Yukon (Whitehorse).