Brenda Belak: Street-based sex workers are the victims when clients are criminalized

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      By Brenda Belak

      A series of arrests last month in Calgary highlights the far-reaching harms that federal sex-work legislation is causing for street-based sex workers.

      In May, police in Calgary announced 27 arrests during a sting operation targeting sex workers and their clients. This follows raids last October that netted 33 clients of sex workers.

      When the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act became law in 2014, purchasing sexual services became a crime for the first time in Canada. Advocates for this, the “Nordic model”, believe it is the way to keep sex workers safe from violence and exploitation.

      Calgary police say their latest investigation was initiated in response to complaints by residents in two neighbourhoods about the presence of street-based sex workers. Police responded by apprehending and laying charges against the clients of those sex workers. Interestingly, not all of the charges were for communicating to purchase sexual services. A significant number were for traffic violations or unrelated Criminal Code offences.

      These operations are similar to one carried out last year in Cape Breton, also yielding 27 arrests. The difference is that in Nova Scotia the names of the accused—most of whom were more than 60 years old—were all published, reportedly resulting in their alienation from their families and ostracism by their communities.

      In the eyes of anti-sex work activists, “shaming the Johns” is a legitimate way to reduce the overall amount of street prostitution (estimated to comprise not more than 15 percent of all sexual services offered in Canada).

      The primary harm from targeting clients is not the embarrassment and reputational damage that comes from “John shaming”. It is the impact on sex workers themselves. Many of those engaged in street-based sex work are entrenched in poverty and dependent on this source of income. Making what they do illegal only forces them to do it in riskier circumstances.  

      One immediate consequence of arrests is that street-based sex workers face longer hours, thanks to a temporary decline in clients. A second is that under these circumstances, sex workers may be more willing to take clients they would otherwise screen out, particularly when they are under greater pressure to avoid police detection.

      Calgary police justified their approach by saying their goal is to connect with sex workers to “build a positive relationship and provide any resources they may need to assist them in leaving the sex trade”. Police have also done this by posing as clients and luring sex workers to hotel rooms, only to assure them they are safe. Apparently, to police in Calgary at least, this is how trust is forged.

      That is not the model police follow in Vancouver. Anti-sex-work activists are unhappy with the Vancouver Police Department’s policy, which explicitly says that sex between consenting adults is not an enforcement priority. The Vancouver Police Department’s sex work enforcement guidelines, developed with sex worker advocacy and support groups and adopted in 2013, give sex workers the assurance that police will only intervene in situations where there are reports of violence, exploitation, or involvement of youth or gangs.

      Last year, the Vancouver Police Department released a video explaining its sex-work enforcement guidelines.

      It’s an approach borne out of tragedy. From the early 1990s to 2002, more than 70 women disappeared from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, most of them sex workers and all of them poor. Criminalization only served to push these women away from police and from the rest of society; it never made them safer.

      It’s time to stop pretending that there is a real difference between banning providing sexual services and banning paying for them. As long as the act of engaging in sex for money is illegal, sex workers will not see the police as allies in the moments that they really need them.

      Brenda Belak is a lawyer and sex workers’ rights campaigner at Pivot Legal Society, a Vancouver-based human rights organization that uses the law to address the root causes of poverty and social exclusion. The fourth annual Red Umbrella March for Sex Work Solidarity is on Saturday (June 11) beginning at 2:30 p.m. at the Vancouver Art Gallery.