People who are familiar with the sex industry in Canada are profoundly disappointed in the introduction of Bill C-36 this month.
Many persons who work in the sex industry, as well as advocates, community agencies and sex-work researchers had hoped for complete decriminalization, which has been successfully in place in New Zealand for a decade. As others have noted, C-36 dismisses the concerns of people in the sex industry, ignores three decades of Canadian research and, in a surprisingly arrogant manner, dismisses the spirit of the 2013 Supreme Court of Canada ruling.
Legal experts are rightly predicting that the bill will result in further costly constitutional challenges and uneven enforcement if it becomes law. Enforcement will be disproportionately felt by the most marginalized people in the industry — a lesson already learned from previous attempts to address adult prostitution through criminalization.
What an immense waste of resources in the face of an opportunity to add to Canada’s reputation as a country that values human rights.
With the bill comes the promise of $20 million in federal funds for “exiting programs.” Like many other sex worker-serving agencies across Canada, PEERS struggles to maintain funding. So why doesn’t the $20 million announcement feel like good news?
Well, in short, “exiting programs” as a primary focus for services are not supported by recent research and evaluation. Providing supports for people in the sex industry to pursue education and employment goals is a critical piece of PEERS’ service continuum, both for those who wish to leave the sex industry, but also for those who remain in the sex industry.
Even the term “exiting” reinforces stigmas, as this term isn’t used for any other type of worker when they leave a job to pursue further education or employment. It pathologizes people in the sex industry, setting them apart from others. It has also become associated with an outdated class- and race-based rescue model that reinforces ideas regarding rehabilitated “good” women who are saved from a life of prostitution and wayward “bad” women who continue in the sex industry.
It is not uncommon for exiting models with a rescue focus to problematically collapse women and children into a single target group, all the while ignoring the support needs of the significant minority of men and transgender people in the industry.
Meanwhile, there’s a substantial risk that those who choose to stay in the sex industry or are unable to leave will avoid support programs focused only on exiting, fearing their moralistic tone. Those who do participate, but find that leaving the sex industry is a complex and sometimes long-term process, might feel shame as a result and might stop accessing important supports.
In truth, many people using PEERS’ services have successfully “exited” already. But that status in no way guarantees them improved access to affordable housing, secure income, social supports, a sense of community and any number of other services that some — but by no means all — past and current sex workers need in the face of enduring stigmas and limited economic opportunity. In fact, vulnerability is sometimes worsened by not having the income once available through the sex industry.
What is best practice for supporting people in the sex industry? First, supports must fit the needs and circumstance of each participant. Second, services must flow from the leadership of sex workers and be oriented to promoting human rights. Being perceived as a “victim” simply doesn’t fit many people’s overall experience in the sex industry, and it is disempowering to an already profoundly stigmatized group.
These evidence-based best practices form the basis of sex worker-led support and advocacy organizations in Canada. They cannot be compromised. It remains to be seen whether any of the $20 million promised by the Conservative government will be used to support this work.
Rachel Phillips is co-chair of the board of directors of PEERS Victoria Resource Society.