CRIMINALIZATION OF THE SEX TRADE INDUSTRY

“The sex trade industry is broad and encompasses a variety of activities including escort services, street-level sex workers, pornography, exotic dancing, massage, internet work, phone sex operators and third-party support (drivers, managers, bartenders etc.).”

(Homeless Hub, nd)

BACKGROUND

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Within the legal system in Canada, sex work is referred to as “prostitution”, a term that carries a lot of stigma and is widely considered offensive and out of date. While one can legally sell sexual services, it is still illegal to:

  • talk about the exchange of money (or any goods/services) for the purpose of sex in a public place (using the internet and phone to communicate about sex work is generally legal);

  • keep or a refer someone to a ‘bawdy house’, which is a place to have sex, like a brothel; and

  • purchase sex or profit from the sale of sex. While this is meant to target exploitation/trafficking and pimps, it makes it difficult for sex workers to have dependents (friends, roommates, family, partners who rely on the income of the sex worker), even if they aren’t involved in the work themselves (Homeless Hub, nd).

"The criminalization of sex work results in a constant police presence, social and racial profiling, harassment, surveillance, arrest and detention — all of which contribute to isolation and vulnerability to violence." 


(The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform)

 

Decriminalization of the sex trade is the first goal; however, solutions must be informed by a larger vision of eliminating discrimination and inequality in concrete ways. We cannot ignore the intersection between sex work and other issues, such as poverty, inadequate healthcare and housing, lack of access to legal aid and safe transportation, over-criminalization/incarceration of marginalized groups, and longstanding issues with our youth protection systems (The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, 2017). 

UNDERLYING ISSUES

Sex Work

Human Trafficking and Exploitation

Conflating sex work and trafficking/exploitation creates further harm for both sex trade workers and people who are trafficked. Human trafficking and exploitation are, at their core, non-consensual, while sex work is consensual. 

Sex workers, in particular, face further stigma, isolation, and violence. When policies only target one end of the spectrum, it results in sex workers having less access to appropriate labour, safety, and health protections and resources that they need. For example, when the entire industry is understood as trafficking, crimes such as assault, sexualized assault, robbery, and other serious crimes committed against sex workers go unaddressed because they may not meet law enforcement’s threshold for trafficking. It also promotes the idea that all people involved in the sex trade are victims, which shrouds the autonomy that sex trade workers possess and excludes them from the decision-making table. Sex workers are in unique positions to add knowledge and be involved with solutions to address human trafficking policy (Living in Community).

“Human Trafficking involves recruiting, transporting, harbouring and/or exercising control, direction or influence over the movements of a person in order to exploit that person. Human trafficking occurs in industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction, domestic work, the sex industry, and many other industries.”

(Living in Community)

In applying existing laws that aim to safeguard against coercion and exploitation, we can support sex worker human rights by strengthening their labour protections and recognizing sex work as work. 

“When labour rights are broken at work, it is not work, it is abuse, including for sex workers”

 

- Heidi Marion, Project Story Facilitator, Theory of Change for the SWAP Project (video)

Legalization, Abolitionism, vs. Decriminalization

Some people have different views on what should be done about sex work as it relates to the law in Canada.

Legalization

Legalization means the government would reverse all criminal laws against sex work, but also regulate the industry. This could mean sex workers may only work in certain areas or require permits to conduct their jobs. While legalization removes the criminal aspect, it still limits sex workers’ autonomy, control, choices, and rights over their livelihoods (Ontario Women’s Justice Network).

Abolitionism

Abolitionism, on the other hand, is the elimination of sex work. It comes from the belief that all sex trade activities are inherently violent and those involved in it are victims in need of rescuing, regardless of their conscious and autonomous choices. Policies that are informed by the belief that all sex work is ‘bad’ are considered abolitionist policies. The new laws governing sex work in Canada are considered abolitionist and put sex workers in greater harm.

Decriminalization

Groups supporting decriminalization support the repeal of all existing criminal laws specific to sex work, which criminalize activities associated with sex work. There are existing, strong laws that address human trafficking, rape, robbery, sexualized violence, and exploitation in Canada, instead of criminalizing the entire sex industry.

For more information about the history of sex work law in Canada and the spectrum of legalization, decriminalization, and abolitionism is described in this article.

Stigmatization of the Sex Trade

Stigma is rooted in socially constructed concepts of ‘normal’. Social norms, despite being socially, culturally, and historically situated, become accepted and enacted as fact. 

People are stigmatized when they fail to fit into normative ideals, and their difference(s) is(are) perceived negatively, situating them as inferior to others. Differences, whether that may be attributes (i.e., skin colour, disability, weight), or behaviours (i.e., substance use, smoking, sex work), are subject to shame, blame, and status loss. Stigma in the sex industry is a powerful force that impacts all aspects of wellbeing, from access to safe support, leaving those in the sex industry more at risk of poor health outcomes and reduced wellbeing, to the laws that are created to regulate the industry and the ways that they are enforced (Peers, 2014). Education is key to tackling stigma and misinformation in the industry (Living in Community).

WHAT'S GOING ON IN THE YUKON?

SCAN Act Disproportionately Impacts Vulnerable Groups

The Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods (SCAN) legislation was enacted in 2006 and has been flagged as disproportionately impacting already vulnerable groups and increasing inflows to homelessness. This Act perpetuates stigma and harm against people who trade sex by using harmful language; it enables the SCAN unit to act on complaints about "prostitution" or "activities related to prostitution" despite the selling of sex not being illegal in Canada. This is a blatant misrepresentation of the Criminal Code.

Multiple Compounding Crises & Intersecting Issues

The compounding housing and opioid crises in the Yukon places vulnerable populations, including sex workers, at greater risk of exploitation. Housing insecurity is the number one challenge experienced by Peers in the SWAPY project. Other issues most noted by peers were: - access to medication (including a safe supply of drugs and alcohol); - income support; education/training; - substance use support; - medical and mental health; - life skills; and - parenting.

Sex workers come from all backgrounds and life paths and they do not all experience the same vulnerabilities and issues. However, given the Canadian law context, which restricts sex workers' mobility and rights, the sex trade is a marginalized industry. This does not mean that sex workers are inherently vulnerable, but it does mean that our systems are set up to put people at greater risk of compounding harms. For example, sex workers have reduced access to safe support services increases their risk of poverty, addiction, and housing insecurity.

IMPACTS

Evidence of the criminalization of sex work (within Canada and across the world) has the effect of:

  • driving the sex industry underground where sex workers have less control over their work environment and safety, making them MORE exposed to potentially violent or exploitive environments;

  • dismissing sex workers' voices, making it harder for them to advocate for themselves, negotiate their services fairly, screen clients, insist on condom use or other harm reduction tools;

  • increasing stigma, furthering sex workers' isolation, discrimination, inequalities, and disempowerment;

  • reducing access to health and social supports, labour protections, and human rights; and

  • increasing tensions with police, racial profiling and surveillance, making it less likely for a sex worker to want to report violence, and reduces options for seeking recourse.

(The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, 2014)

OUR STANCE

We believe in listening to sex workers, supporting body autonomy, and advocating for equal access to human and labour rights for all.

 

We support the decriminalization of the sex trade. 
 

As a member of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, we support the recommendations to decriminalize sex work and strike down laws that harm sex workers. Essentially, the recommendations can be boiled down to three main Calls to Action.

CALLS TO ACTION
  • Canada’s laws need to provide meaningful protections against violence and exploitative working conditions

  • Create laws that ensure safe working conditions for sex workers, just like those that would be enjoyed by any other worker in Canada

  • Invest in social programs that ensure all people have meaningful choices and options in their lives.

 

RECENT ACTION & PUBLICATIONS

(2019 - 2025) The Supporting Workers' Autonomy Project Yukon

The Yukon Status of Women Council launched its Supporting Workers' Autonomy Project Yukon (SWAPY) project, which emerged from a community need to engage with people with experiences of trading sex or who have experienced sexualized exploitation in the Yukon. The project includes a Peer-led Support Group for people with lived experience of sex work or sexualized exploitation and a Community of Practice of support and advocacy organizations; the project as a whole aims to advance understanding, build accessible support options and engage in meaningful policy change to reduce stigma and improve safety and options for people with lived experience.

(2021 - 2022) In The News

(2022) YSWC Joins Legal Battle

The Yukon Status of Women Council is involved in supporting sex workers who are joining voices in a legal appeal of the controversial Protection for Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) which was passed in 2014.

THE RED UMBRELLA

The red umbrella is a global icon for sex workers’ rights around the world, first used in Venice in 2001. It stands for strength and resistance and “symbolizes protection against the abuse and intolerance faced by sex workers.” 


(Global Network of Sex Work Projects, 2021