Of sex work, dignity and human rights

“The way you tell it, frankly, it sounds like a TV sitcom about happy hookers.”


When witnesses provided testimony on Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights last week, many applauded the legislative sentiment contained within the preamble.

The specific passage in Bill C-36’s preamble states that “it is important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution.” Supporters of the bill argued that it represented a “progressive, paradigm shift” that made respect for human dignity an integral objective of the government’s efforts to outlaw prostitution.

But by conflating human dignity with the discouragement of prostitution, the government is implying that it is only by exiting the industry that a sex worker can attain self-worth.

Not only is this a paternalistic idea, Bill C-36 puts forth a regressive concept of human dignity that is in direct conflict with the accepted view that dignity is not accorded by the state, but is an intrinsic human right.

In order to test the preamble’s stated respect for human dignity, let’s examine the positions of the various stakeholders in the prostitution debate, beginning with the federal government.

Parliament has a duty to respect the dignity of Canadian society by enacting legislation that reflects Canadian values and meets its constitutional obligations. The government has a responsibility to reflect the spirit of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Bedford decision which declared prostitution laws unconstitutional.

Instead, the government has abrogated its duty to protect Canadians from foreseeable risk by proposing legislation that will recreate the same harms that gave rise to the Bedford challenge. In its supposed attempt to protect human dignity, Bill C-36 will have drastic consequences for those currently involved in the sex trade by driving it further underground.

The concerns of law enforcement with respect to Bill C-36 were front and centre at the committee hearings. Of all of the proponents of the bill, it was only law enforcement representatives that saw the need for the added criminalization provisions against sex workers.

Several argued that Bill C-36 will be an effective tool to open a dialogue with a potential “victim.”

The Robert Pickton experience reminds us that when it comes to sex work, law enforcement often fails to exercise legislative powers to protect society’s most vulnerable. It was not a lack of legislative tools that exacerbated the tragedy on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. It was racial and socio-economic prejudice that resulted in police inaction.

Some prostitution opponents acknowledged the economic imperatives that give rise to the necessity of sex work. However, Bill C-36 will ultimately remove the opportunity of another parent to feed his or her children.

All of these important concerns merited serious deliberation at committee.

Although many Members of Parliament addressed the issues with respect, there was one exchange that warrants further examination with respect to Bill C-36’s declaration of respect for human dignity.

Natasha Potvin, a sex worker brave enough to come before committee, recounted that she freely chose sex work in order to provide for her daughter. She stated that she never felt as though she was abused and, as such, took issue with the label of “victim.” She also maintained that she had positive working relationships with her clients.

During the Question and Answer, Conservative MP Stella Ambler (Mississauga South) summarized Potvin’s testimony with the following quote: “The way you tell it, frankly, it sounds like a TV sitcom about happy hookers.”

So much for the progressive, paradigm shift.

Erica Obsession is a pseudonym. She is a Vancouver-based sex worker.

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