Canadian Sex Work Policy, the Failure of the “Nordic Model,” and Future Approaches

by Sabrina White (Spectrum)

Spectrum is a student initiative aimed at professional and career development for LGBTQ+ students. We aim to foster an inclusive environment to ensure LGBTQ+ students and their allies have resources, information, and connections to maximize personal and professional success.

Twenty-two days into the new year, a woman was killed in a hotel room in Quebec City. Her name was Marylene Levesque, she was 22 years old, and she was a sex worker. Her death is not an isolated incident, but rather a testament to the pervasive destruction of sex work policy in Canada.

Canadian sex work policy weaves a web of complexity. The current legislation (Bill C-36) is a version of the so-called Nordic model of sex work. This neo-abolitionist approach took off in Sweden in 1999 and has different variations globally. The main goal of this approach is to decrease the demand for sex work by penalizing those who seek it, thus reducing the amount of sex workers and sex trafficking victims. However, this demand-based method has been ineffective in addressing these supposed targets. First, the rate of human trafficking continues to be on the rise since 2010 and only 7% of sex trafficking cases in Canada actually make it to court. Second, studies continue to show that criminalizing sex work does not end demand but rather perpetuates stigma against sex workers. Finally, the Nordic model assumes all sex work to be involuntary and, therefore, trafficking; this removes the agency of individuals to choose to enter into the sex work industry and victimizes them. The Canadian government benefits from portraying sex workers this way, as it suppresses the voice of sex workers in their own policymaking. 

While in theory this method punishes purchasers of sex work while minimizing consequences for sex workers. In practice, it limits sex workers ability to protect themselves, minimizes their ability to execute safe decision making, and continues a cycle of policing that forces sex workers underground. Bill C-36 details communication offences which prohibits the discussion of services of a sex worker being discussed anywhere a child might inhabit (i.e.: schools, playgrounds). This law leads to increased policing. This increased policing leads to sex workers having to shorten conversations with clients or move into private, potentially risky areas. These decisions often lead to improper screening of clients which can become increasingly life-threatening. Bill C-36 also restricts anyone from deriving material benefit from the services of a sex worker except sex workers themselves. If sex workers find themselves in a dangerous situation, they are unable to hire a security guard for protection. They are unable to hire a secretary, to screen clients, or a driver to ensure safe arrivals and departures. 

This policy framework led to how Marylene Levesque was found dead in a hotel room. It is the framework that has allowed almost 300 murders of sex workers between 1991 – 2014, of which 34% remain unsolved. Moving forward, there are clear steps that Canadian sex worker policy needs to take to ensure the security of sex workers.

The first step is to legalize sex work. New Zealand, a country where sex work has been decriminalized since 2003, has shown successes since its implementation. While social stigma is still an issue, sex workers have seen an increase in employment rights. Sex workers particularly emphasize how clients can no longer use the illegality of their profession against them in coercive ways. Legality encourages sex workers to report bad client behavior. It also has the potential to allow for a network of anti-trafficking and child prostitution sex workers to work with police. The current model cannot uphold this kind of potential, when sex workers fear the state themselves. 

Second, transgender sex workers require targeted policy to ensure their health, security, and safety. Discrimination against trans people in other labour markets has led to a high portion of trans sex workers; this community faces specific issues that must be addressed in Canadian sex work policy moving forward. Transgender Europe (TGEU)’s Trans Murder Monitoring Project (TMM) “reveals that 75 percent of all trans victims of murders between January 2008 and December 2011 were sex workers.” Trans sex workers are less likely to receive adequate health care due to their health often being a larger expense. Social security can be difficult to access for trans sex workers, due to stigma and the lack of legal support. Finally, there needs to be a standardized understanding and civility in treating trans sex workers within the system, from law enforcement to Canadian judiciary to health care professionals. 

Third, there must be special attention to sex workers of colour, particularly Indigenous sex workers. High numbers of Indigenous women, girls, queer and 2 spirited individuals are trafficked every year in Canada into sex work. Of the trafficked women and girls in 2014 in Canada, 50% were indigenous. As stated above, the legalization of sex work has the potential to highlight instances of trafficking by eliminating possibility of penalty for sex workers working with law enforcement. Indigenous sex workers must be consulted in the development of new sex work and sex trafficking policy, as their voices are integral not only in creating effective policy but also for the empowerment of their communities.

Finally, and simply, future sex work policy must be drafted by sex workers. Labour policy in Canada is developed by experts in their fields; why then, were sex workers not consulted on the state of their labour policy?

Sabrina White is currently in her first year as a Master of Global Affairs student at the Munk School. She previously graduated from Concordia University with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Creative Writing. Her interests include LGBT+ policy, immigration, and community rebuilding.

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