Canada’s new prostitution bill: What you need to know

Michelle and Jay Brock founded Hope for the Sold to fight sexual exploitation and slavery.

Michelle and Jay Brock founded Hope for the Sold to fight sexual exploitation and slavery.

Many Vancouverites will have seen Red Light Green Light and met its producers, Michelle and Jay Brock during two tours earlier this year. The film expresses the ministry’s concern that “As nations around the globe attempt to fight sex trafficking, many consider legalizing prostitution,” and asks “How can we prevent sexual exploitation before it happens in the first place?” In this comment, Michelle addresses the situation in Canada.

On June 4, Justice Minister Peter MacKay introduced the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (Bill C-36). The bill was drafted as a response to last year’s Supreme Court decision, which ruled Canada’s existing prostitution laws to be unconstitutional. The Court gave Parliament exactly one year to propose new legislation in response to the ruling, and many have been eagerly anticipating what that would look like.

And now the time has come. Here are some exciting key points:

  • For the first time in Canada’s history, the buying of sexual services would be illegal.
  • For the first time, prostituted/trafficked people will be seen as victims of coercion or circumstance.
  • For the first time, the government of Canada will provide millions of dollars to help women and youth leave prostitution.

The preamble sets the tone for the legislation, highlighting the vulnerabilities of those in the industry and the need to target demand.

Whereas the Parliament of Canada has grave concerns about the exploitation that is inherent in prostitution and the risks of violence posed to those who engage in it;

Whereas the Parliament of Canada recognizes the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual activity;

Whereas it is important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution, which has a disproportionate impact on women and children;

Whereas it is important to denounce and prohibit the purchase of sexual services because it creates a demand for prostitution;

Whereas it is important to continue to denounce and prohibit the procurement of persons for the purpose of prostitution and the development of economic interests in the exploitation of the prostitution of others as well as the commercialization and institutionalization of prostitution;

Whereas the Parliament of Canada wishes to encourage those who engage in prostitution to report incidents of violence and to leave prostitution;

And whereas the Parliament of Canada is committed to protecting communities from the harms associated with prostitution . . .

The preamble itself is a huge step in the right direction for Canada, as it acknowledges many of the complexities of prostitution. Previously, prostitution was solely seen as an issue of nuisance and criminality, whereas we are beginning to see it as an issue of social justice.

Now let’s get into the guts of the proposed legislation. Under the proposed law:

1.  Purchasing sexual services is illegal. This is the critical piece, as it seeks to reduce demand for paid sex. Demand is the economic engine that fuels sexual exploitation and makes sex trafficking extremely lucrative. While there will always be some people who go out of their way to pay for sex, adding barriers will deter the majority from engaging. According to a study that asked men (including some who admitted they had paid for sex) which initiatives would deter them from purchasing sex, 80 – 83 percent said jail time and 66 – 79 percent mentioned monetary fines. Targeting demand is a big step forward if we are to deal with the issue of sexual exploitation on a long-term scale.

2.  Receiving a financial or material benefit from exploiting another person would be illegal. This means pimping. Other non-exploitative arrangements would not be criminalized. Before the Supreme Court ruling, living off the avails of prostitution was a criminal act, meaning that body guards, accountants and drivers technically could have been criminalized because they were benefiting off the prostitution of a person they were providing services for. This would no longer be the case. Spouses, roommates and dependents of those in prostitution would also be exempt from a criminal offence. However, trafficking (exploiting someone for profit), would not be legal. While traffickers could potentially masquerade as ‘bodyguards’ and ‘drivers,’ the exemptions made in the bill align with the Charter and allow for those who wish to hire security services for their own protection to do so.

3.   Advertising the sexual services of another person is illegal. This applies to both print media and the internet. Those who advertise their own sexual services are exempt.

4.  Selling sexual services where a child could reasonably be expected to be present is illegal. This serves as the ‘protection of communities’ portion of the bill, and such places would include schools, nurseries, churches and malls. A person can sell sex anywhere else, including indoors in private units for example, just not around children. Personally, I’d like to see this point clarified when the bill goes to committee. It would be beneficial if ‘location where children are present’ was further defined to avoid ambiguity. (For example, within 500 meters from a school, daycare, etc. I think most Canadians would; this is pretty reasonable.) This specification would be helpful both for those who sell sex as well as law enforcement, so there is less room for confusion.

5.  The penalty for pimping, as well as for purchasing sex from a child will both be raised.

6.  The government will pledge $20 million in new funding. This includes support for grassroots organizations dealing with the most vulnerable. Assistance will be provided to those who want to leave prostitution. There is a push for more funding as well, but this is a good start and something we have not seen on this scale before.

Overall thoughts:

I am pleased to see that this bill puts the responsibly on the johns. For far too long, prostitution has been an anonymous, low-risk activity for those seeking to purchase sex. Considering that prostitution has a high degree of violence (regardless of legal context), the only way to reduce the harm on a wide, long-term scale is to reduce demand for paid sex.

If partnered with an awareness campaign that educates Canadians about the realities of prostitution, we have an opportunity to shift the way people view the purchase of sex, and will make great strides toward gender equality.

I am also pleased to see that the bill marks a paradigm shift in how we view people who sell sex. It is no longer assumed that they are criminals, but seen as vulnerable people who need protection and services. If police are adequately trained and the ‘location where children could be present’ is specified further to avoid ambiguity, this law gives those selling sex the ability to reach out to police if they need help.

It’s worth pointing out here that our two options as a country right now are Bill C-36 or full decriminalization. Do we want to make it easier or harder for people to purchase sex? If we as a country want to take a stand against commercial sexual exploitation, Bill C-36 is worth considering. While details of the legislation can be fine tuned along the way, the foundations are good.

In my opinion, it’s likely that there will be a court challenge – because let’s be honest, no matter what legislation was presented, pro-sex work groups will settle for nothing less than full decriminalization. 

However, the three things that they requested at the Supreme Court level have been granted: a person can now sell sex out of an indoor space (the bawdy house provision was struck down); they can hire security and accountants (the living off the avails provision was struck down); and they can communicate for the purposes of sex as long as it’s not in an area where children could reasonably be expected to be present. They essentially got what they asked for.

But some want to take it further. They want full decriminalization – including the buying of sex, even though the majority of Canadians disagree. They want to expand the market for paid sex (it’s a lucrative business after all), while the government is trying to decrease sexual exploitation. 

redlight1These are very different goals. Considering that prostitution disproportionately affects marginalized and vulnerable groups and is rife with violence regardless of legal context, the government’s decision to reduce demand for paid sex is definitely a move in the right direction.

We applaud Minister MacKay on his courageous first step of introducing legislation that recognizes the need for addressing demand and for pledging much needed funding for frontline programs. Let’s continue to push ahead and work together to ensure safety and dignity for women, men and children.

This comment is re-posted by permission from Hope for the Sold. Their most recent movie is Red Light Green Light.

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