Survivors and current sex workers shared their experiences and perspectives on the prostitution laws with the House of Commons justice committee this spring.
The justice committee was undertaking a long-awaited review of Canada’s prostitution laws. Over the course of the study, it heard from 48 witnesses in person or by video and received 72 written briefs by individuals and organizations, including one from the EFC.
There was a clear divide among many of the witnesses and briefs. Some urged MPs to keep the current laws, which penalize sex buyers and pimps, as an essential tool in the fight against sexual exploitation. Others urged MPs to repeal the laws and decriminalize prostitution.
As the report says,
With such diverging views and experiences before us, it was challenging for the Committee to develop specific recommendations regarding which provisions should be kept, repealed or amended or to come to a decision as to whether to repeal PCEPA’s provisions concerning sex work entirely.
The committee tabled its report Preventing Harm in the Canadian Sex Industry: A Review of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act on June 22, just before Parliament began its summer break.
The report itself doesn’t change the law, but it makes recommendations to the federal government that can influence the government’s actions. The committee has asked the government to respond to its report.
First, we commend the committee for listening to all sides of the issue. It is evident in the report that the committee heard the points made by witnesses, both those in support of the laws and those against. While the committee tries to walk a middle line between support and decriminalization, with some recommendations that seem contradictory, it demonstrates that it heard what the witnesses and briefs were communicating.
And the report indicates that our perspective was heard. For example, the report says, “Gwendoline Allison of Barton Thaney Law told the Committee that, ‘Prostitution targets the vulnerable,’ often those without meaningful choices,” with a footnote that references the EFC’s brief. The EFC’s brief to the committee is quoted four times in the report, as well as referenced in the footnotes.
Second, while the report does not recommend a full repeal of PCEPA at this stage, it is clearly framed in a way that suggests decriminalization could be a future development. The committee does recommend minor changes to the prostitution laws, such as repealing provisions on communicating and one on advertising.
While we appreciate that the committee recommends further consultation before making major changes, we strongly disagree with the premise of the report’s second recommendation, that the prostitution laws cause serious danger and harm. The second recommendation proposes that the government “recognize that protecting the health and safety of those involved in sex work is made more difficult by the framework set by the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act and acknowledge that, in fact, the Act causes serious harm to those engaged in sex work by making the work more dangerous.”
The criminalization of sex-buying and pimping is one element of a three-pronged approach. It is meant to work together with the other elements: significant, long-term investment in exit supports and services; and public awareness and education campaigns. These have not been fully implemented. The Equality Model seeks to provide options for individuals in prostitution. The intention is not to remove the livelihood of vulnerable persons without providing economic and other supports. A robust public education campaign would reduce the confusion, noted in the report, over which practices are illegal.
The EFC fully supports the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act as an essential tool in the fight against sexual exploitation.
Third, we note that the committee made some positive recommendations, including that the government:
- Consult extensively before making any change to the laws or developing programs (recommendation 1)
- Take action to address exploitation and trafficking, making additional resources available to victims and law enforcement (recommendation 6)
- Introduce legislation to strengthen the laws on exploitation and trafficking prior to making any change to decriminalize sex work (recommendation 7)
- Study how to encourage more consistent application of the prostitution laws across the country (recommendation 9)
- Invest in and support programs to address the root causes for entering sex work to make entry into the industry a real choice and to protect the vulnerable (recommendation 15)
- Invest in and support additional supports for vulnerable youth at risk of sexual exploitation and individuals who wish to leave the sex industry, including mental health and addiction services, vocational and education programs and income supports (recommendation 17)
The EFC will continue to advocate in support of the prostitution laws and in support of people who are being prostituted.
The report quotes the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network:
A major factor contributing to the absence of attention given to the women who have gone missing women in Vancouver is … the insidious societal belief that these women were not worthy of protection, a message that is explicitly conveyed to the johns, giving them the go-ahead to act toward these women with impunity.
The EFC believes people who are prostituted are worthy of protection. Our support for the prostitution laws is rooted in a deep desire to protect the safety, equality, dignity and well-being of all women and girls. We must work toward a society where no woman, girl or boy feels their only or best option for survival is prostitution.
No woman or girl should be seen as a product to be consumed. The dignity of all women and girls is promoted and protected when they are afforded real options, not when we accept prostitution as a solution to poverty, racism, out -of -reach education or housing costs, and so on.
We seek the well-being of people who are being prostituted and of all people who are vulnerable to exploitation: to ensure their needs are met, to uphold human dignity, and to allow for safe, secure, dignified options. When there are Canadians living in poverty, unable to afford housing, experiencing racism and marginalization or lack of social support, we must respond with genuine options to address those needs, rather than accepting the sale of the person’s sexuality as the answer.
Please join us in working to eliminate all forms of sexual exploitation in Canada. See www.TheEFC.ca/prostitution and our resources on the review at www.TheEFC.ca/prostitution-law-review.