Bill C-36 imposes moral judgement on consensual sex


Picasso – “Nu couche et Picasso assis”, 1902,

Though I have neither bought nor sold sexual services (nor know anyone who has done so, or at least who has told me about it), I find myself incredibly concerned about the Canadian government’s proposed bill C-36, which responds to the Supreme Court’s striking down of certain parts of Canada’s prostitution law by creating a new piece of legislation that is just as restrictive, ignorant, and unsafe (if not more so) for sex workers and their customers.

In my understanding, the bill restricts sex workers to working either in their homes or on the streets (since anyone renting space to them elsewhere would be “benefiting from the avails” of sex work, which means security guards, drivers, etc. would also be breaking the law if hired by a sex worker), prohibits them from advertising their services anywhere people under 18 may reasonably be expected to see this advertising (which includes, apparently, the internet so I’m not sure how that’s going to work), and criminalizes the act of purchasing sex. To reiterate: selling sex would be perfectly legal (with the above restrictions) but buying it would not.

Which of course means that the selling of sexual services wouldn’t REALLY be a legal transaction, because all of the sex workers’ customers would become criminals.

I know there are people who are passionately for the abolition of prostitution in Canada, and I know they mean well. I know the overwhelming majority of sex workers are women, and I know poverty is a factor in many women’s decision to become sex workers. I know there are women, men, and children currently performing sex work against their will. I know there are some sex trade workers who are being exploited, trafficked, assaulted, and plied with drugs by the people who are supposed to “protect” them. And this should and must stop.

But human trafficking, selling drugs, attacking a sex worker, and purchasing sex from minors (or exploiting a minor) are already illegal. What we need are better tools to enable police and courts to enforce existing laws, and trusting relationships between the justice system and sex workers that will both keep sex workers safe and help police to root out human traffickers, drug dealers, child molesters, and johns who hurt or kill sex workers. Effectively driving the profession farther underground and into the most dangerous parts of town (as bill C-36 would do by forcing sex workers away from any area children “might” be present, and customers of sexual services to hide for fear of arrest), does nothing to create trust between the justice system and the people this legislation is supposed to protect.

As for poverty, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in such a desperate situation that sex work became my only way to support myself and/or my family. No woman or man should be driven into sex work because of poverty. Instead of criminalizing johns, however, I would rather see our federal and provincial governments enact legislation that strengthens our social safety net and ensures vulnerable families never dip below the poverty line in the first place. It’s all well and good that the government wants to earmark $20 million for “exit services” (i.e. services that help sex workers leave the profession, though I am a little worried that most of these services may not be provided by impartial government agencies but by church groups eager to impart their brand of morality). Wouldn’t it be great if they earmarked those millions to fight poverty in Canada, so those who didn’t want to be sex workers never even had to start?

I am the first to admit that I am not the the most knowledgeable when it comes to sex work or to poverty. I also admit I personally would not like to be a sex worker. Which is why I have to trust the sex workers whose opposition to this bill I have read on Twitter and in news articles (like this one). Instead of rushing out to speak for people I do not know and whose lives I know nothing about, I have to trust what they’re saying. Yes, unsafe conditions, trafficking, drugs, and poverty are all problems in the sex trade. Problems that can be dealt with in other ways that don’t criminalize the exchange of money for sex itself. Yes, many sex trade workers are or do become victims of violent or exploitative situations, but their exploitation, abuse, and murder is already illegal, and bill C-36 won’t make those things any more illegal than they already are. I am not trying to downplay the dangers or the indignities that might befall a person working in the sex trade. BUT…

  • To claim ALL women who work in the sex trade are victims while ALL of their customers are aggressive, misogynistic criminals both patronizes women (ignoring the fact that some people do truly choose sex work), and demonizes men (and the occasional women) who turn to professionals when having sexual relationships (or indulging a specific odd kink) in their personal life isn’t possible. And there are lots of non-misogynistic reasons a person may pay for sexual services (from what I have read/heard, sometimes johns want human touch and someone to talk to, sometimes they have disabilities that make sex difficult, or their partner has a disability or illness and has given their healthy partner permission to seek sexual gratification from a professional, etc.). There are, of course, less saintly reasons a person may seek out sexual services as well, but if the sex trade worker is 100% consenting to the arrangement then that is none of our business.
  • The government’s talking points on bill C-36 have consistently referred to sex workers as being “women and children”, completely ignoring the men who also work in the sex trade. Are they too victims? Are they too being exploited by misogynists? Or can these men be trusted to DECIDE whether or not they want to receive money in return for sexual services because they’re men?
  • Bill C-36 and its advocates are being incredibly disingenuous. For example, Julia Beazley, policy analyst of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, claims that the use of sex workers is all about power, and that the government, through this bill, has “courageously challenged the belief that men are entitled to paid sexual access to women’s bodies.” (You can read more from Ms. Beazley on I completely agree that no one is entitled to paid sexual access to anyone’s body unless the person whose body it is WANTS to grant paid sexual access.

This last point is something neither the government, nor Christian advocacy groups, (nor, it must be admitted, some feminist organizations) seem to be getting. It is possible to WANT to sell sexual services. It is possible to take pride in sex work (and lots of vocal sex workers and kink artists do). It is possible to make yourself a sexual object (on YOUR terms) when you want to and still believe in dignity and equality for all genders. And it is possible to purchase the services of a sex worker without being a pervert.

What the government is effectively doing with this bill is saying that not all sexual relationships between consenting adults are okay (notice I am talking about adults, not children, and situations that involve full and freely given consent, not coercion or exploitation). Consenting adults can have sex and that’s just fine with the government, but as soon as one of them pays for it, that person is a criminal and a pervert and an aggressor and a deviant. The seller of said services suddenly becomes not an equal partner in a mutually agreed upon sexual act, but a victim who lacks the agency to decide for themselves what they want to do with their bodies. Essentially, there are certain kinds of sex the Conservative government simply “doesn’t like”, or perhaps doesn’t understand, and is hiding behind the guise of protecting women to impose their tastes (while creating situations that would actually make sex work for women more dangerous and allow Robert Pickton types to murder women with a lot more impunity).

I thought we established long ago that when it comes to fully consenting adults, “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” I know Pierre Trudeau wasn’t talking about sex work then, but perhaps we should be now.