Sex worker advocacy groups protest Bill C-36

With a new prostitution law scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 6, sex worker advocacy groups such as the Ottawa-based POWER are preparing to take on the government with a new fundraising campaign.

POWER’s first step was a dance party hosted at Club Saw on Nov. 21. Seeing Red, complete with burlesque dancers, kicked off a month-long crowdfunding campaign aimed at  raising $10,000 to help generate strategies for protesting the law.

POWER — Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist — believes the new law, Bill C-36, puts sex workers at risk.

“The government did not consult sex workers or organizations like POWER when writing these new laws, and what they need in terms of keeping themselves safe,” says Katherine Van Meyl, a POWER organizer.

The Supreme Court struck down some old prostitution laws last December, leaving room for improvement. Van Meyl feels that C-36 has taken the country backward.

The bill criminalizes the buyers of sex, not the sex workers themselves, though it does put limits on where they can discuss the sale of sex. It also criminalizes any third-party advertising for sexual services, including online, so sex workers will have to advertise themselves, without specifically stating what services they will provide.

“Consent is all about clarity,” Van Meyl says.

POWER and other critics of the bill see it, at best, as a retread of the old laws, but with added vulnerabilities for sex workers.

“It re-criminalizes the same things and introduces this idea of criminalizing clients which also puts sex workers at risk,” Van Meyl says.

With clients fearing arrest, she says, sex workers will be forced into rushed negotiations, losing time to screen their clients or their environment.

Christine Bruckert, a criminology professor at University of Ottawa and a POWER board member, says she can’t understand why the federal Conservative government would take these steps.

“The only reason I can think of is that it caters to their base. This is a very moral law that is going to increase vulnerability to sex workers,” Bruckert says.

Citing evidence such as the annual SlutWalk, Bruckert says progress was being made in removing the stigma around sex workers and female sexuality.

“This new law has moved us back further than the 1970s,” she says. 

Unlike some cities around the country, such as Vancouver, the Ottawa Police Service has chosen to fully enforce the new law.

“The new law isn’t going to change too much about how we do business,” says Michael Laviolette, OPS Central District inspector, referring to a recent john sweep in Vanier.

He stresses that the trouble isn’t necessarily the prostitution itself, but other undesirable elements that come along with it. He does, however, recognize the law’s shortcomings. 

“The law is not perfect, but these are the tools the government has given us to work with,” he says. 

The next step for POWER and other groups is unclear, but plans are in place to gather in the spring to generate ideas. Bruckert suggests public awareness campaigns and efforts like the open letter signed by 200 legal experts that was sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, challenging the law as violating the Charter of Rights.

The first hurdle, says Van Meyl, will be whether the government will listen.

“We did have an opportunity to become a world leader in sex work law reform and recognize that sex workers have a voice,” she says, “but the government simply chose not to listen.”