Sex workers worry that feds' response to Supreme Court decision will drive trade further underground
Three days before the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s prostitution laws, a group of Toronto sex workers gathered in a meeting room at the 519 Church Community Centre as part of an annual commemoration of sex workers who have been killed or have gone missing on the streets.
They were mourning the loss of friends and colleagues to work-related violence and the harsh realities of a job that society continues to sweep under the rug.
The meeting was preceded by a private sharing session for sex workers only. There were a lot of tear-stained faces when they opened the doors to the larger group waiting outside.
“It was raw, it was emotional and it was much-needed,” said one woman who participated in the closed session. “There are so many people dealing with this grief and most are not comfortable coming to something like this and admitting they are a sex worker.”
The vigil afterwards drew about 100 people. It was December 17, International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. And the message was straightforward: without legal ways to protect themselves, people in the sex trade will continue to be in danger, denied access to justice like second-class citizens.
The Supreme Court seems to agree. On December 20, it unanimously struck down laws forbidding communicating in public for the purpose of selling sexual services (aka screening one’s clients), keeping a common bawdy house (aka working inside) and living off the avails of prostitution (aka working for a sex worker). The idea was, if we legally allow sex work, we can’t make it more dangerous through other existing laws.
The court gave the federal government a year to fix the current laws before they’re struck off the books. Chanelle Gallant, a spokesperson for Maggie’s Sex Workers Action Project, says the general suspicion in the community is that Harper isn’t on board with the spirit of decision.
“We’re elated but nervous about the future, specifically about the introduction of the new legislation,” she says, noting that the feds seem keen on the Nordic model, which criminalizes clients as opposed to workers.
That’s something one hears often in discussions about sex work.
It’s hard to remove the stigma around the job, yet sex workers can’t work in the open, so that stigma persists.
“We must move past the notion that marginalization is an inherent part of sex work,” says Gallant.
Everyone seems keen to make laws to protect sex workers, but no one wants to ask sex workers how they can best be protected.
How are sex workers safer if clients are criminalized?
They’re not. As Gallant points out, that would drive the trade further underground, leaving fewer clients and more competition for them, so sex workers would take more risks.
It’s a valid point. If johns are targeted, they’re not likely to want to be anywhere near the public eye, driving prostitution away from safe spaces and into hidden corners.
Current screening techniques, which include observing clients’ behaviour while still in public or comparing their vehicle to a list of known threats, will become more difficult.
Gallant disputes the court’s assertion that sex work is “inherently risky,” a feeling echoed by multiple speakers at the vigil.
If sex workers felt they could go to the cops when they were in trouble – and if police treated violence against sex workers like they do attacks on any other citizens – then the people who prey on prostitutes would actually get caught and everyone would be safer.
The point is highlighted by the case of Cheyenne Fox, a 20-year-old sex worker who died last spring after plummeting from a Don Mills condo.
Fox’s family continues to fight to get Toronto police to properly investigate her death, which – based on the account of the client she was with – is being treated like a suicide. The family is currently in the courts trying to have the case changed to a homicide. (Toronto Police Services did not respond to a request for comment.)
Audrey Huntley, an organizer with No More Silence, which keeps a community-led database of murdered aboriginal women, says police took the word of the john despite witnesses’ testimony that Fox was dangling before she fell.
Many sex workers’ murders and disappearances go unsolved, which means their killers are still out there.
A big part of the problem is that police often ignore sex workers’ reports of abuse/missing women, or actually commit violence themselves.
At the commemoration, Monica Forrester read a long list of names of missing women. The faces around the already tense room became longer as the list seemed to go on and on.
While there’s no definitive count, the Native Women’s Association of Canada says that more than 582 aboriginal women alone have died or gone missing, many of them working on the streets.
Visiting speaker Elene Lam of Hong Kong sex worker rights org Zi Teng says the situation is even worse in many Asian countries. There, she said, sex workers are routinely raped by police and abused after being arrested. She said they are hoping Canada’s Supreme Court decision will provides some direction to the rest of the world.
“People say, ‘You choose to do this work – you deserve what comes to you.’ But we need laws that recognize the choice and dignity of the sex worker,” says Lam. “It is very sad to have to have the International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers. I hope one day we can have the International Day Of Partying Sex Workers instead.”
Toronto’s sex workers got a taste of that party on December 20, celebrating the Supreme Court decision with a rally in Allan Gardens. Whether the next step is a tighter clampdown remains to be seen.