New laws will not bring sex workers justice
By Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV)
The Sex Workers United Against Violence Society, also known as SWUAV, is an organization of women who do sex work in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. We have been active in fighting the previous laws surrounding sex work and are devastated to see the direction that the Canadian government has taken with Bill C-36 (the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act – PCEPA). PCEPA criminalizes sex workers as well as their clients. Our membership is made up almost entirely of women with experience doing street sex work – women who will be severely impacted by this new law.
There has long been friction and distrust between street sex workers and police in Vancouver. In recent years, new policies and guidelines that were developed by the VPD have been attempting to improve the situation. PCEPA would move the clock back and undo a great deal of the work that has been done. Criminalizing sex workers creates a more adversarial relationship with the police. If every time a sex worker sees the police they are trying to arrest them or their client, that sex worker will end up avoiding the police. That will also mean that sex workers wouldn’t feel safe telling them about bad dates and other violence. However, the VPD has clearly stated that they do not plan on changing their approach to policing sex work in Vancouver. While this is positive, the existence of PCEPA means that the opportunity to charge a sex worker or their client remains, and the fear of being arrested or charged may still affect where people work.
Another huge impact of Bill C-36 on sex workers is in reducing or even eliminating the time available for screening clients. Having even one minute to screen can mean checking the inside of the car for weapons or for other people, having a brief conversation with the client giving you time to feel them out and see what your gut instinct is telling you, and it also gives you time to go through recent bad date sheets or warnings and see if anything raises any red flags. PCEPA just creates more anxiety and can lead to workers forgetting important details, or can make it difficult to check or take down licence plate numbers. If by the time that first minute has gone by you’re already in a car driving quickly away from your neighbourhood and you get that sinking feeling in your stomach…it’s way too late. C-36 will cost sex workers that minute and so much more.
Getting and keeping safe and secure housing often means hiding the fact that you are a sex worker from your landlord and your neighbours. Some buildings have policies that say if you’re breaking the law you will be evicted. Before the PCEPA, a sex worker could work at home without breaking the law and risking eviction. Now, PCEPA has created precarious housing situations for many sex workers. Further, if sex workers can’t work in their own home because they are afraid of being evicted, they will have to work in places where they don’t have control and are vulnerable.
The PCEPA is bad news for sex workers in so many ways. We cannot help but observe that this law was enacted by a government that refuses to take action to address the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada. This law just promotes an agenda that is not about safety for women, but about morals and ideology. The research has shown here in Canada and around the world that criminalizing sex work has negative impacts on sex workers – it increases HIV/STI risk, increases the risk of violence and increases stigma and discrimination. Sex workers deserve and need human rights and equality – not the PCEPA.