Sex worker Susan Davis welcomes legal challenge against federal law criminalizing purchase of sexual services

She says politicians are more interested in getting reelected than respecting her constitutional rights

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      Vancouver sex worker Susan Davis says she’s sick of the federal government ignoring her constitutional rights.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, the spokesperson for the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Communities delivered a litany of reasons why she feels that politicians are more interested in pandering to sex-trade prohibitionists than paying attention to Supreme Court of Canada jurisprudence.

      “I’m just so tired of being put on the back burner,” Davis said. “Pot first. Assisted dying first. Okay, next it will be something else. ‘Oh well, we’ll get to that later.’ Sure. Sure you will.”

      Davis made her remarks as the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform—of which her group is a member—announced a constitutional challenge against the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA). The petitioners' names are being kept confidential for now.

      The alliance has alleged that five sections of the law violate sex workers’ rights to security, personal autonomy, life, liberty, free expression, free association, and equality.

      “We have been patiently waiting on the empty promises of parliamentarians to uphold the rights of sex workers who are increasingly experiencing the impacts of these laws, and the heavy hand of law enforcement,” alliance national coordinator Jenn Clamen said in a news release. “This government has spent five years paying lip service to human rights and to feminism, and it’s time for them to act.”

      In 2013 in a unanimous ruling written by then chief justice Beverley McLachlin, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three prostitution laws. They dealt with communicating in public for the purposes of selling sex, keeping a common bawdy house, and living off the avails.

      McLachlin’s decision highlighted how the ban on bawdy houses made it easier for serial killer Robert Pickton to prey on women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

      The following year, the then Conservative government introduced legislation that imposed a greater crackdown, criminalizing the purchase of sexual services and banning the advertising of sexual services. The law didn't even define "sexual services", making it difficult for anyone to know what exactly was now illegal.

      According to the alliance, that legislation also prohibits sex workers from working in collective and indoor workspaces, obtaining relevant identification from clients, and establishing safety relationships with others so that they can pool resources, services, and knowledge.

      Davis is upset that politicians whose parties pledged to support sex workers have refused to amend that law since the Liberals formed government in 2015.

      Susan Davis was fighting for sex workers' rights long before the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three laws in 2013.
      Susan Davis

      Sex workers kept away from commons committee

      In addition to these issues, Davis is exasperated that the parliamentary committee on access to information, privacy, and ethics refused to hear submissions from sex workers. This came when it recently held hearings about the protection of privacy in connection with sex platforms such as Pornhub.

      “They’ve heard from everyone from the evangelical church to Vancouver Rape Relief,” Davis said. “We were told by Liberal parliamentarians that they don’t want to give the Conservatives an opportunity to broaden the discussion related to Pornhub. Of course, the most notorious abolitionists are on that committee.”

      Davis worries that the committee will take aim at sex workers who post short videos of themselves on sites like Only Fans.

      “On that platform, it’s behind a paywall so you have people subscribe to your page,” Davis said. “They pay a fee to view short clips. And the content creators are the actual sex workers.”

      She mentioned that it can take months to develop a large enough audience to have a livable wage.

      Another of her concerns is the propensity of some politicians to promote using facial recognition software to weed out underage people using these sites. This could result from a bill introduced by Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne to implement age-verification methods online.

      According to Davis, federal and provincial legislation is routinely advanced on the basis of false information, such as the debunked claim that the average age for those entering prostitution is 14. Or, she said, claims are made about the impact of pornography when there's no evidence backing up these statements.

      “So while this charter challenge is going forward, they’re still enacting all these other little things that are going to take so much for us to peel back all the layers of criminalization that they’re trying to implement and they’re not giving us any time to defend ourselves,” Davis said.

      "I just don't understand," she continued. "Everybody decries fake news about the climate, fake news about vaccines. Everybody decries these things, but when it comes to sex work, it doesn't matter. It's whatever plays into your own personal beliefs about the issue." 

      She added that this is especially difficult during the pandemic when many sex workers were ineligible for $2,000 monthly payments under the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

      Davis said that politicians are supposed to abide by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She emphasized that she’s read four different codes of conduct governing MPs and senators, including one issued by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

      She believes that these ethical codes, as well as the government’s policies regarding research involving human beings, impose a requirement on politicians to include sex workers in discussions and to stick to the facts.

      “It’s really frustrating that the government refuses to do their jobs,” Davis said. “You know, we were promised evidence-based decision making.”