Poor legislation and stigma endangers sex workers

End criminalization and treat sex work like the legitimate work it is

Despite being around for centuries, sex work remains a deeply stigmatized profession.

False information and generalizations continue to hinder the development of a more realistic and progressive social narrative regarding this field of work.

An example of this stigma came up during a recent debate in the House of Commons over the decision to grant day parole to a convicted murderer who allegedly proceeded to murder a sex worker.

On Feb. 4, members of Parliament (MPs) debated a motion introduced by the Conservative Party asking the House of Commons to “condemn” a decision made by the Parole Board of Canada. The board granted parole to an inmate serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife.

The accused inmate, Eustachio Gallese, had been living in a correctional facility since March 2019. As per his parole documents, Gallese could only engage with women for the sole purpose of satisfying his sexual needs.

Conservative MP Arnold Viersen was debating with NDP MP Laurel Collins, who asked Viersen to consider the role that legislation passed by the former government led by Stephen Harper effectively criminalizing sex work could have played in Marylène Levesque’s death.

Viersen responded by asking Collins if she herself had ever “considered” sex work, as he believes no one voluntarily engages in sex work.

Viersen’s comments reflect a viewpoint about sex work that is not just wholly inaccurate, but incredibly harmful to sex workers.

One of the misconceptions about sex work is that sex workers do not choose this field of work willingly and are forced into it through sex trafficking.

People do choose to engage in this type of work and for their own reasons. A 2015 study from Leeds University found that 91 per cent of U.K. sex-worker respondents found sex work “flexible,” with two thirds saying it’s “fun” and over half finding it rewarding.

In Canada, a study from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research found that 70 per cent of sex workers are satisfied with their job in the industry, while 68 per cent feel secure in their employment. Regardless of the social stigma and ignorance that surrounds it, sex work is real work and all workers deserve rights. There are an estimated one to two million sex workers in the U.S. alone.

In 2014, the Conservative government — then led by Stephen Harper — passed Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. Bill C-36 made purchasing sexual services, communication with the purpose of selling sexual services and obtaining profits from sex work or advertising sex work entirely illegal, but stipulates that those who sell their own sexual services are absolved of criminal liability.

Bill C-36 does not help sex workers because it prevents them from being able to properly screen their clients to protect themselves from potentially violent and dangerous individuals.

By forcing sex workers into meeting clients on the streets and in hiding, the potential for violent crimes against them increases as their profession remains unregulated and is not held up to any legal safety standards. Workers are also forced to meet with clients in potentially unsafe places due to the criminalization of communicating about sexual services. They are left to fend for themselves in the darker corners of society.

Conversely, legalizing aspects of sex work has been linked to lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and lower instances of rape.

Basically, Viersen is projecting — with his own extreme views and his party’s horrific policies that have only further endangered sex workers like Levesque.

Further casualties and violence can be avoided if Canada creates a harm-reduction framework rather than tries to abolish sex work altogether.

One could compare the fight against sex work to the war on drugs. If we are aware that people will participate in an activity whether it is legal or not, why would we not wish to make them safer?

The best way for our government to help sex workers is to admit that Bill C-36 has been a complete failure and to work with sex workers to rewrite legislation to ensure that no more unnecessary violence occurs before Canada learns its lesson.