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The New Prostitution Bill: What You Should Know

I support Bill C-36. It’s a start, a good one, towards protecting those who are vulnerable. But it’s not black and white.

In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down certain prostitution-related laws and gave the government a year to either let the laws remain null (essentially decriminalizing prostitution) or respond with legislation. Choosing to respond with legislation, the government unveiled Bill C-36 “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” this past June.

Anticipating a government response, there were heated arguments and debates regarding how prostitution and sex work should be dealt with (or not dealt with) legislatively. Many arguments have been and are being made.

  • Prostitution is an affront to gender equality and largely exploitative.
  • Prostitution is empowering to women and a viable career.
  • Laws must not be put into place – in other words, legalize or decriminalize prostitution – in order to protect the most vulnerable. 
  • Laws must be put into place to protect the most vulnerable.

At the root of all the arguments – regardless of where you “stand” – there is great concern for the most vulnerable involved in the sex trade, particularly marginalized women and children and those engaging in street level sex work.

Over the course of four days, expert witnesses testified in front of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights with opinions and recommendations. TheCommittee then proposed a series of changes to the bill, most notably:

  • That the Department of Justice conduct a five year review of the effects of the bill.
  • A more clear definition surrounding the illegal selling of sex in a public place where a minor is reasonably thought to be (“at or near a playground, school, or daycare”).

While the media have been relatively quiet about Bill C-36 after the Justice Committee concluded its examination of the bill, things will undoubtedly become more heated as Parliament resumes this month, when Bill C-36 will go through another committee and a third reading.

Issues surrounding the sex trade are not clearly "black and white” – there are a lot of areas for greys and questions.  At the root of Bill C-36 is a desire to change perceptions of the sex trade, to identify it as largely exploitative and to address issues of dignity and human rights. This is an issue for those who view sex work as empowering and a legitimate career choice. To them, dignity and human rights are being stripped of them in criminalizing those who wish to purchase sexual services. On the flip side, many of those who view the sex trade as inherently exploitive and demeaning view Bill C-36 as a positive step to provide dignity and human rights to those who are marginalized. That is what makes Bill C-36 – and the greater question of the sex trade! – incredibly complex: desire for dignity and human rights, but conflicting ideas on how dignity and human rights are afforded.  

While Bill C-36 makes great efforts to protect the most vulnerable in the sex trade, there is much more that can be done – both by the Canadian government and also by the greater population.

The General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches and I co-wrote a brief to the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights outlining our support for the bill and providing some constructive feedback on how we can go the extra mile to prevent commercial sexual exploitation and protect those who are currently engaged in the sex trade. In our brief, we recommended that the government:

  • take further steps to address poverty as a means of prevention;
  • develop a comprehensive public awareness campaign to ensure that the spirit and intent of the proposed legislation is achieved;
  • provide standardized training to all law enforcement agencies to support implementation of the legislation;
  • completely decriminalize the selling of sex or, at the very least, provide clearly defined parameters as to where selling sex would be illegal;
  • and demonstrate a commitment to rehabilitation programs for pimps and john’s in order to prevent reoffending. 

There have also been discussions around the proposed $20 million pledged by the Conservative government. While this amount has been proposed, there are no clear guidelines as to where and how that money will be allocated. Answers surrounding the logistics of these funds will likely come once the fate of Bill C-36 is decided. Many have raised concerns that $20 million is far from enough money needed to support organizations and agencies committed to assisting with exit strategies, housing, legal assistance, trauma counselling, etc. While this is undoubtedly true, it is certainly a positive first step. However, in order to be proactive in preventing commercial sexual exploitation the government needs to greater lengths to be holistic in their approach to curbing commercial sexual exploitation; in particular, addressing areas of poverty, immigration, Indigenous issues, and child welfare systems.

While the government has been tasked with addressing the issue of commercial sexual exploitation, they are not the only ones who should be having conversations on the best steps to take to protect the vulnerable and exploited. The Church can be (and is!) influential in addressing these areas of concerns as well. God calls us to serve the most vulnerable in our society.

“I am the Lord, so pay attention! You have been allowing people to cheat, rob, and take advantage of widows, orphans, and foreigners who live here. Innocent people have become victims of violence, and some of them have even been killed. But now I command you to do what is right and see that justice is done. Rescue everyone who has suffered from injustice.” Jeremiah 22:2-3 (CEV)

There is much you should know about Bill C-36. But what I think you should really know about this bill is that with or without it, we are called to “do what is right and see that justice is done.” There are many ways we can answer this calling in response to addressing commercial sexual exploitation. We are called to serve and love those who are vulnerable, exploited, and even the perpetrators. Advocating for laws and systems to protect vulnerable and exploited people is only one avenue of service.

[Image: Flickr user The Q Speaks]

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