This month’s Justice Committee hearings on Bill C-36 were an absolute circus. And not the happy, I-want-to-run-away-with kind. We’ve packed up the wagons and put away the big tent, but there’s still an elephant in the room: many Canadians are rightly concerned that the health and human rights of the women, men and trans people in the sex trade are not being seriously considered by some of our elected officials.
And what better time to discuss sex workers’ health and human rights than the very week lawmakers, front-line workers, medical professionals and activists are all gathering for the 20th International AIDS Conference. There, it is readily acknowledged that criminal laws, including those prohibiting the purchase of sex, place sex workers at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Sex workers already walk a tightrope. They often have to navigate the disgust of neighbours and family, the patronization of feminist saviours and the harassment of law enforcement, hoping to clear the streets of all that we as a society would rather not see. They do all this while trying to make a living.
What is getting lost in the parliamentary process is the fact that sex workers are entitled to human rights, including the right to health. In Canada v. Bedford, the Supreme Court of Canada told our government, in no uncertain terms, that the health, safety and human rights of sex workers must be respected. By countering with Bill C-36, our government is announcing that it just doesn’t care. And when committee hearings stem from a place that fundamentally disrespects sex workers and counts their human rights as expendable, a meaningless spectacle is the inevitable outcome. Health as a human right barely made it into the tent.
How will Bill C-36 affect the health of sex workers in Canada? First, there is a growing global agreement that criminalizing sex work violates sex workers’ human rights, and that criminalizing the men and women who pay for sex is also poor public health practice.
When buying sex is illegal, sex workers need to rush to negotiate terms of safer sex and have no time to identify clients, let alone screen them. Their regular clients shy away, leaving them with fewer options to refuse clients who may pose a risk of physical harm. With the loss of regular clients, sex workers will face pressure to see more clients, leaving less time for safety precautions. Sex workers may also be reluctant to carry condoms if doing so could lead to police harassment or a client’s arrest.
Sex workers who work on the street must continue to meet in back alleys and remote locations where they have no backup and where it will be harder to insist on safer sex. If sex workers get caught in the criminal net under a ban on communicating near children, they could also be prohibited from areas where there are food banks, shelters and health clinics that offer harm reduction supplies and HIV testing, among other services. And since the laws effectively prevent sex workers from working indoors, those individuals will have a much harder time creating a familiar environment where they can take the necessary precautions to protect their health.
None of this bodes well for sex workers’ health and human rights, or for HIV prevention.
During the Justice Committee hearings, some supporters of Bill C-36 equated all sex work with paid rape. Sex workers were cruelly heckled from the gallery and some committee members discredited their experiences, selectively listening only to those who contend that prostitution is inherently violent. The fact that all sex workers who testified said Bill C-36 would make their work dangerous may have been recorded on tape — but it was not heard.
The truth is that Bill C-36, even with a few post-committee amendments, will deprive sex workers of their right to health. The Bedford decision, which addressed this elephant in the room head-on, will be all but erased.
The circus has come and gone, and Canada will be left to test its newest constitutionally flawed law on the backs of sex workers.
Our thoughts are with all those who lost their lives on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, including those researchers, medical professionals, activists and allies en route to AIDS 2014 in Melbourne.
Freddie Arps is a legal researcher with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.