Prostitution debate joined by PEERS, UVic team

University of Victoria researchers and representatives from PEERS Victoria, a resource society for sex workers, were among those invited to speak at House of Commons justice committee hearings last week.

The committee is reviewing Bill C-36, which would make prostitution illegal in Canada and penalize several related activities.

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Rachel Phillips, executive director of PEERS, noted the majority of witnesses were in favour of the legislation but said that is not indicative of what Victorians have expressed.

“There wasn’t much discussion on commercial enterprise, which is really important in our region as it offers a pretty safe and structured place to work,” said Phillips, who is also a researcher in the area.

Critics also expressed confusion with aspects of the bill, which characterizes sex workers as victims but also criminalizes them.

At the hearing, Phillips shared concerns from local sex workers and argued that the diversity of those in the industry — those with positive stories as well as the horrifying — and harm reduction should also be considered.

Board member Natasha Potvin spoke about her experiences as a former sex worker, stating that while not everyone chooses to be in the industry, she did.

Conservative MP Stella Ambler questioned Potvin about her comments, saying: “The way you tell it sounds like a TV sitcom about happy hookers. … If this bill was enacted, would it put you out of business?”

Potvin thought for a moment and said: “I do believe it would prevent me from being safe when I work. … The fact that clients would be criminalized means good clients wouldn’t decide to come back. Those who are bad clients are not afraid of police or the law.”

Potvin said 10 per cent of her clients were women. “Are they also perverted?” she asked.

UVic researcher Chris Atchison was one of the few witnesses called to speak who has expertise with sex buyers. He has conducted two of the largest studies ever done, he said, including a recent national study on sex work interactions.

He said his research indicated that 65 per cent of buyers negotiate directly with sex workers and that less than 10 per cent of buyers said they pressured, insulted or didn’t pay sex workers.

“We conflate violent predators with clients,” he said prior to the hearing.

Many clients did admit to victimizing sex workers with negative online reviews, Atchison said.

The committee will consider the testimonies in the coming week as it reviews the bill prior to a third reading, parliamentary debate and final vote.

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