In the lives of sex professionals, silence can equal death. But in Canada, that silence is mandated, because “communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution” is forbidden by law.
It’s not illegal to offer sexual services for hire in this country, but almost all of the circumstances that surround the work of sex professionals have been criminalized — making it virtually impossible to sell sex without breaking a law.
If you work on the street, you can be arrested for “communicating” — and sometimes simply making eye contact with an undercover officer bent on entrapment is enough to get busted. Though sex pros are the ones most targeted, their clients are also subject to the communication law.
Last summer, Ottawa police arrested at least 59 women and men on sex-work-related charges using entrapment techniques. More recently, they introduced “Dear John” letters sent to the home of any man who stops his car in certain neighbourhoods to talk with a suspected sex worker.
If you work from your home, it can be considered a “common bawdy house” and you can be charged on that basis. A massage parlour, parking lot or car can also be deemed a bawdy house. (Two recent Supreme Court rulings in December 2005 determined that sex clubs were not considered bawdy houses, but only if prostitution did not take place.)
Laws against “procuring” prevent you from referring clients to colleagues, or working with another sex pro with the same client, or employing someone to make note of the license plates of cars you get into as a safety precaution. If you have a live-in partner or roommate, they are at risk of arrest for “living off the avails of prostitution” if you use your sex-work money to pay your rent.
From the perspective of the advocacy group Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), the impact of laws targeting sex workers is clear. “On December 21, 1985, the communicating law, Section 213 of the Canadian Criminal Code came into existence. Shortly afterwards, our colleagues began disappearing,” according to a SPOC press statement.
In March 2007, three SPOC members announced their intention to launch a court challenge to strike down Criminal Code provisions that criminalize sex work.
The communication law in particular has made the lives of sex workers more dangerous. “Pretty well every woman has a story of a guy who has literally tried to kill them,” one street sex worker told Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society (PLS).
Women and men working the streets are at greater risk because they have little opportunity to assess how risky a potential client may be, since any negotiation in which they engage makes them targets for arrest on a communication charge. So they’re sometimes stuck with just getting in the car and hoping for the best.
To avoid detection by police, many street pros resort to poorly lit, isolated or industrial areas to ply their trade. This makes them more susceptible to STDs from clients whose bodies they cannot see very well. And when a sex worker is taken to a secluded place in a car by a client, being abandoned in the middle of nowhere is the least of their worries.
As the recent cases of BC killer Robert Pickton or the Project Kare investigations into the death of dozens of sex workers in Edmonton demonstrate, the danger of violence, rape and murder is far from theoretical. Laws that criminalize sex work clearly increase the risk.
Reports by Vancouver’s PLS have indicated how police tactics against sex work essentially amount to a war on the poor. The communication law is most rigorously enforced on the streets of poor neighbourhoods. PLS focuses on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where everyone they interviewed sold sex to meet bare subsistence needs, and all of them had been subject to repeated police harassment — ranging from refusal to assist women who wanted to press rape charges to cops demanding blowjobs in lieu of arrest.
The demonization of sex work extends from the legal sphere to the court of public opinion. Witness the recent debacle surrounding the Facebook group “For those people who have thrown something at those lovely girls on Higgins.” On the group’s wall, people egged each other on via stories about pelting Winnipeg street prostitutes with objects ranging from Timbits to full soft-drink containers. (An outreach worker confirmed to a CBC reporter that some sex workers had had bricks and full beer bottles lobbed at them.)
It extends to the international stage as well, most notoriously in the case of HIV funding by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The legislation that established the fund talks about “eradicating prostitution” — and USAID will only give out money to organizations that sign a pledge that their group is officially opposed to prostitution.
According to Taking the Pledge, a documentary by the Network of Sex Work Projects, the impact has been felt around the world, from impoverished Mali where there are now more and more sex workers and less and less available condoms, to Bangladesh, where a series of United Nations-lauded drop-in centres were shuttered, leaving homeless sex workers with nowhere to bathe or use a toilet.
Working in the sex trade is not necessarily easy. Many sex workers have articulated a litany of woes associated with their time in the business, from feelings of low self-worth to post-traumatic stress disorder based on experiences such as intense violence and degradation from unstable clients.
But there is nothing intrinsically dangerous or unethical about sex work itself. The complicated situation facing those who sell sex has less to do with the nature of the job and more to do with our society’s failed responses to poverty, addiction, male violence, mental-health issues, sexuality and freedom of expression.
Why does all of this matter to queers? Many of us have experienced poverty first hand or have engaged in sex work. Like sex pros, we know what it’s like to have our sexual experiences and very identities medicalized and criminalized. We know how it feels to be scapegoated about HIV/AIDS. We also know the value of reaching out to support other disenfranchised communities who intersect with our own — such as the trans community.
Sex workers may not have the right to communicate in public — but we do. Let’s use it to speak out on their behalf.