Selling Sex in Canada

Natasha Segal

On Thursday, June 20, Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada was launched at a party hosted by Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, featuring a giant singing vagina and a cake courtesy of –where else?—Frostitution. The cabaret book launch also included readings by Tor Fletcher, Jane Doe, and Trish Salah, and performances by Wrong Note Rusty, from Boylesque and Andrya Duff, from Operation Snatch.

Selling Sex, a book that advocates sex work decriminalization, is edited by Emily van der Meulen, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Ryerson University; Elya M. Durisin, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at York University; and Victoria Love, a sex worker, activist, and Maggie’s member. The book presents a realistic, genuine view of the sex industry. Selling Sex further incorporates a large assemblage of voices including researchers, advocates, feminists, academics, and sex workers of various ages and genders. Challenging dominant sex industry narratives, the book asserts that sex work is work and thus must be treated and respected as such, meaning that sex workers should have the chance to enjoy equal labour rights, dignity, and respect.

While the exchange of sexual acts for money is legal in Canada, almost every activity adjacent to such exchange is not. The Criminal Code of Canada prohibits communicating for the purposes of prostitution in public (s. 213 “communicating”), the use of indoor workspaces (s. 210 “bawdyhouses”), the transportation to a working space (s. 211) and managerial and/or collective activities (s. 212 “procuring”). In practical terms, this means that a sex worker cannot hire a book keeper or a body guard, a driver or a receptionist, a manager or a graphic designer to assist them in their work activities. To be precise, in practice, current Canadian laws do not allow for practiced sex work without legal obstruction as the control of associated activities restricts and severely limits sex workers’ abilities to make choices concerning where they can work and under what circumstances.

Sex work decriminalization has become an important policy area partially due to the current legal battles surrounding the industry, with Bedford v. Canada as the most recent example. In March of 2007, Terri Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott launched their case at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice pursuing the removal of three laws from the Canadian Criminal Code: s. 210 (bawdy house); s. 212(1)(j) (living on the avails); and s. 213(1)(c) (communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution). In the case, the three argued that because it is legal to work as a sex worker, it is a violation of their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for the above laws to criminalize many activities associated with sex work. These laws, they argued, make it “impossible for sex workers to work in a safe and secure environment” (“Legalization vs. Decriminalization|Stella,” n.d.).The case suggested that prostitution laws contradict sex workers’ Charter rights to liberty and security of the person and freedom of expression.

On June 13, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada heard Bedford v. Canada, and now has the final say over the case. The outcome could be anything from complete decriminalization to reverting back to the status quo. Should decriminalization be achieved, sex workers, their clients, and other sex work industry employees will enjoy full labour rights and protections, the ability to communicate boundaries and advertise services, the capacity to hire assistants, managers, body guards, and drivers (all resulting in job creation), and have access to police and court protection from violence and maltreatment. If the Court votes to uphold the laws as they are today, sex workers will continue to experience employment within a criminalized environment and will not be able to enjoy the same rights and protections afforded to other Canadians.

Because sex work has often been talked about, written about, regulated, and politicized by people who do not have a lived experience of sex work, sex workers and their supporters are now standing up against the ignorance and shame that has surrounded the issue, and proclaiming: “Nothing about us without us!” This means that sex workers want to be involved in all matters that will affect their professional lives. Selling Sex is a great start.

Natasha Segal is a 2014 MPP Candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. She also holds a Masters of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, an Honours B.A. in Professional Communications, and a Diploma in Social Services. Her interests include social policy, women’s rights, LGTB rights, creative non-fiction prose, and photography. Read more about her views on sex work decriminilization here.

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