Prostitution laws fail to protect sex workers

The notorious serial killer Robert Pickton, who is currently serving a life sentence for six counts of second-degree murder, recently sparked public outrage with his memoir Pickton: In His Own Words. The book prompted an online petition, which received almost 60,000 signatures urging Amazon to remove the book from its site. In 2002, the DNA or remains of 33 women were discovered scattered across the former millionaire’s Vancouver pig farm. Following his arrest, Pickton bragged to the police saying he murdered 49 women, many of whom were believed to be prostitutes pushed by the police into the remote pockets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In Canada, an estimated two per cent of the female population are engaged in some form of prostitution. Eighty-five per cent of sex workers will have experienced homelessness or grew up subjected to poverty and 90 per cent were abused, according to Amber Dawn, a former sex worker in How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoire.

On December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada determined that the laws surrounding prostitution were “unconstitutional” and undermined sex worker’s rights and safety. Parliament was given a one-year deadline to create a new legislation. At midnight on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014, the House of Commons passed the controversial prostitution Bill C-36. Under the new bill, clients instead of sex workers, will be criminalized for the purchase or consideration of sexual services in exchange for any monetary value. The new law also prohibits sex workers or a third party from soliciting their services in public spaces. The bill has made it criminal for all print and online publications to chair the ad of a sex worker, while also criminalizing anyone living on the avails of prostitutes, with limited exceptions such as family members.

The bill dismisses sex worker’s human rights and impedes on their ability to work under safe conditions. Sex workers are not meant to be confused with sex slaves or those who are sex trafficked and often coerced into operating against their will. Individual laws should be set to combat sex trafficking crimes. However, a business that is exploitive should not dement the laws surrounding a business model that based on consenting adults.

There were two consultations, one at the house level and another at the senate. Both were there to listen to stake holders, but neither listened to the sex workers who testified about their experiences, according to, sex worker campaign lawyer for Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver, Brenda Belak. Belak started advocating for sex worker’s rights in South Asia over two decades ago and says Bill C-36 was a disappointment. “What we got with Bill C-36 was a law that is informed by a combination of morality, and ideology not evidence and not experience. The law basically just reproduces the harms of the laws that were already struck down,” says Belak.

In the 1980s, legal repression in Canada made brothel work more difficult and street prostitution became more common. Before Bill C-36 anyone, including the client that communicated in public for the purpose of buying or selling sex, would be prosecuted. Under the new bill only those caught selling sexual services, be it the sex worker or a third party, will be targeted if they are caught communicating their services any place where someone under the age of 18 could be present. These areas include parks, schools, public streets, malls, restaurants, bars and residential neighbourhoods. However, the parameters haven’t been specified on how far sex workers need to be from these spaces.


Beth Whalen has worked with sex workers for more than two decades. She is the Harm Reduction Service Coordinator at the John Howard Society in Durham Region, which offers drop in support services for sex workers. Whalen says the majority of clients who come to access the services are street-based sex workers and that the new laws make working conditions extremely dangerous for them. “They’re now driving them into more secluded places. We’re driving them to areas where they’re by far more at risk of violence. That’s my biggest concern,” says Whalen.

Dave Selby is the spokesperson for Durham Regional Police and says it’s difficult to quantify the number of sex workers in the Durham Region. “They might work a week in Pickering or Oshawa then be in Mississauga or Hamilton the next week. Some of the girls we intercept and talk to aren’t even sure what city they are in,” said Selby. Due to pressure from city and residents, Vancouver police spent decades moving sex workers out of residential and upscale neighbourhoods into remote, industrial, and commercial areas of The Downtown Eastside. These areas were under-policed, making it easier for sex workers to go unnoticed. It was also where Pickton acquired his victims.

Street-based sex workers have a much more difficult time screening their customers, and are at a higher risk of being spotted by police. Whalen says since the bill passed she hasn’t known of any arrests of local sex workers. She says since 2010, the relationship between sex workers and Durham Police has improved significantly. “Durham Regional Police have actually been quite good, they’ve come along way,” says Whalen. Adding that a police officer has helped to create a ‘Bad Date Booklet’. The booklet is designed to teach sex workers how to provide a better description and gather information on the client. Sex workers also have an anonymous line they can use to report back to the John Howard Society who then forwards information to the police. Selby says he is unsure if the bill has improved the safety of sex workers because they don’t have statistics. “Certainly the focus of police activity has moved from traditional enforcement (e.g. prostitution sweeps) to ensuring the young women involved are participating by choice – without coercion,” says Selby.

Steve Lyon is a criminal lawyer in Toronto who used to represent sex workers, Johns and pimps. Lyon says he hasn’t represented a case related to sex work in years and doesn’t consider charges against sex workers or Johns to be common. According to Lyon, police often targeted his clients by tracking them down then catching them while sexual services were being performed. He says there have been other instances where sex workers and Johns were caught by undercover police who solicited as sex workers or clients. When asked if sex workers confessed to experiencing sexual assault by police, Lyon says they had, but didn’t wish to elaborate. According to Lyon, charges against a sex worker can often be hard to dismiss because some of his clients had drug issues and prior charges. In 1997, Robert Pickton drove Wendy Lynn Elistetter, a street sex worker, to his farm, handcuffed her, and stabbed her in the abdomen. The woman survived but because she had a drug addiction, the prosecution said her testimony was unstable and the attempted murder charges against Pickton were dropped.

Bill C-36 also criminalizes alternate platforms for sex workers to communicate and advertise by making it illegal for any publication, including an online publication, to host the ad of a sex worker. Sex workers can advertise their own services but if any publication chooses to run the ad of the sex worker, the publication will be prosecuted. The maximum sentence for running an ad can be five years. This creates a challenge for sex workers who work indoors and can no longer attract, negotiate, communicate, or screen their clients. Belak says this poses a safety risk for sex workers. “It’s now impossible for a client and sex worker to negotiate consent and that’s very important because consent is what differentiates sex from sexual assault, and sex workers want to get rid of that part of the law,” says Belak.

Operating indoors has also become a challenge for sex worker and almost impossible under the new law. Indoor venues not only pose a risk for clients, but also for anyone operating and working in them. In accordance to Bill C-36, anyone caught procuring or “living off the avails” and receiving material benefit from a sex worker can be subject to prosecution. This includes coworkers and managers or anybody oversees a sex worker in a sex worker establishment like a massage parlour. Even a sex worker who works inside a commercial enterprise with another sex worker is automatically criminalized under the new bill. By forcing these women to work alone and making anyone working with a sex work criminally liable, sex workers are subject to working under more dangerous circumstances. “Many sex workers are not in a position to work independently. They actually want to be able to work in commercial establishments,” says Belak. On June 22, 2011 the body of 36-year-old Cindy Glandue, an Indigenous sex worker and mother, was discovered lifeless in the bathroom of an Edmonton motel. Gladue was discovered with an 11 centimeter wound to her vagina. The killer was from Ontario. The jury acquitted him because they believed that Glandue consented to the violent sex that caused her to bleed to death.

In 2015, Amnesty International joined the United Nations and the World Health Organization to legalize prostitution worldwide in an effort to improve the safety of sex workers. Whether sex work is ubiquitous or covert, we can’t deny the existence of these workers anymore than we can their basic rights and ability to work safely. Some do it by choice, some as a means of self-expression. For the majority, sex work is a means of survival. Whether you’re pro sex work or against it, society needs to recognize there are larger challenges sex workers are facing outside of public opinion. Until we reach a compromise that enables their safety, sex workers will continue to operate under peril conditions. Even with Bill C-36.