Canada’s conservative government is poised to pass a bill which would criminalize sex work. But a new national study disproves many of the paternalistic stereotypes and assumptions behind the legislation.
According to Canada’s Justice Minister Peter MacKay, Bill C-36, which aims to abolish sex work, is based on the fact that “the vast majority of those that sell sexual services do not do so by choice. We view the vast majority of those involved in selling sexual services as victims.” The proposed bill would punish not just those who buy the services but the alleged victims, as well. Punishing victims doesn’t exactly scream sound policy. But on top of that, the characterization of sex workers as victims is problematic, to say the least.
Canada’s first nation-wide survey of sex workers has some interesting findings the government should, but probably won’t, listen to. Over the five-year study, which was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, researchers interviewed 218 sex workers, 1,252 clients, 30 spouses or intimate partners of sex workers, 61 managers of escort or massage businesses, and 80 law enforcement officials in six cities throughout Canada. The study did not, however, look at undocumented sex workers or children, and probably captured neither the best nor the worst of the industry. As one of the study’s lead authors, Cecilia Benoit, explained, “If you think of the sex industry as a continuum, there are people over here who have a lot of control and make a lot of money, and you have people over here who are forced… Our study probably got people in the middle and towards the ends, but not at the extremes.”
Though the bill presents sex workers as victims, the study found that 82 percent of workers felt appropriately rewarded, 70 percent were satisfied with their jobs, and 68 percent felt they have good job security. According to Benoit, “Sex workers are average Canadians. They’re Caucasian, in their 30s and 40s, and have education and training outside of high school. Most of them don’t feel exploited, they don’t see buyers as oppressors…. They are people trying to do the best they can with the tools they have to live their lives.” Researcher Mikael Jansson added, “They talk to us about the amount of control they have over their work situation… They have a lot more control over the timing of their work, the pace of their work than journalists.” And researcher Chris Atchison reported that, “What we’ve found from the data is when it comes to workers, clients and their interaction, sex workers set the terms and conditions of the service… Clients come to them and say ‘Here’s what I’m looking for.’ A sex worker then says ‘I’m either willing or unwilling to provide that.’”
Another misconception is the average age at which people become sex workers. Many of the bill’s supporters said sex workers enter the industry between the ages of 14 and 16. While 29 percent of the sex workers interviewed reported starting sex work before they turned 19, on average, the study found that the average age was 24.
Though the sex workers surveyed report having more freedom and less work-related stress than other people, they do report higher stress levels from their non-work lives, higher use of drugs and alcohol and three times the average rate of depression. They also suffer from higher levels of childhood trauma and post-traumatic-stress disorder. The researchers note, though, that these problems have ”little or nothing to do” with sex workers’ jobs and their early research suggests that “punitive laws and regulations, stigmatizing public attitudes and institutionalized practices that make it difficult for sex workers and others involved in the sex industry to access protections and supports like other Canadians” make these matters worse.
But let us, for argument’s sake, accept that sex workers are powerless victims. How on earth does pushing them further underground in any way empower them? Spoiler alert: it doesn’t! The very opposite in fact. As Atchison puts it, “We see exacerbation of conflict and unsafe sex practices when we force people to engage in hostile, criminalized climates.” Sex workers who are victimized and abused will, if anything, be more marginalized as they themselves, their colleagues, and clients will be less likely to report crime if they fear being punished themselves. In other words, the law criminalizes not only violent crime but consensual sexual transactions. And those who are engaged in the latter will fear reporting the former, making all sex workers more vulnerable to abuse. Atchison drives home this important point with stark imagery: “People who are raping and murdering sex workers, they’re not clients. Nobody murders a sex worker and then puts $500 down on her corpse.”
So, maybe politicians should stop pretending this is about protecting anyone and just admit it’s about controlling people, their bodies, and their sexuality. Sound familiar? At least they’re consistent.