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Thursday, 27 March 2014

What is the state of sex work in Canada?

by Amee Barber

Three things everyone should know about sex work in Canada:

  1. Until recently, the sale of sex was not actually illegal under the Canadian criminal code, but everything surrounding it was: living off the avails, procuring, soliciting and maintaining a bawdy house. As a result, many sex workers argue that they feel there are forced to operate ‘underground’ and are afraid to openly disclose their profession to those who can help them. Sex workers cannot legally hire bodyguards or drivers or work in public, and, in some instances, even have trouble securing child care. Moreover, despite the fact that Edmonton, like many other cities, sells licenses so a sex worker can sell her services, sex workers are considered independent contractors and therefore are not entitled to employment benefits or protections.

  2. On December 21, 2013 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that current Canadian legislation against solicitation was unconstitutional after finding that they negatively impacted the security and safety of sex workers.  It was argued that if sex workers were able to establish a regular place of business and hire body guards, then they would be able to more safely practice their business. The Court has given Parliament one year to come up with a new legislative scheme before the old laws became unenforceable.

  3. The sex industry is highly stratified, just like any other industry. Different occupational profiles are associated with different levels of risk and earnings. Independent escort workers are typically the highest earners, while sex workers working for an agency typically have to follow house rules and pay a percentage to their operators. Meanwhile, the lowest earners, and the most at-risk to violence and addiction, are generally street workers.

Three myths about sex work in Canada:

Myth #1: All sex workers are coerced into sex work by men and are dominated by them.

The Reality: We must understand that there are a variety of reasons that women enter into sex. It is undeniable that some of the women within the escort industry were particularly vulnerable before their entry into sex work, and physical or emotional coercion must be taken very seriously and those responsible must be punished; however, many of these women enter sex work to make their own money, to gain flexibility and autonomy, and/or to live an exotic life style. 

Myth #2: We must protect the sex worker who is incapable of giving informed or real consent.

The Reality: This view argues that the sex worker is either coerced or so psychologically damaged, or socialized by patriarchy, to the point that she is no longer responsible for her actions and is rendered incapable of providing any type of real consent; yet sex workers, like all women, are capable of informed consent. They do not want their choices invalidated by people who claim to "know better."

Myth #3: Sex work is violence against women, it is degrading and objectifying and reinforces their own oppression.

The Reality: Some view the sex worker as a victim who must be "saved" because they believe the very act of sex work is morally wrong. This view purports that men reduce women to sexual objects, which means that women are used only for their body parts. However, this view tends to equate sexuality with a sense of self, which is not a legitimate comparison. If the sale of labour is not seen as degrading and objectifying, why is the sale of sex any different? 

Amee works as a senior strategic engagement specialist for the Department of Energy, Government of Alberta. She also teaches at the University of Alberta, where is currently finishing her PhD in comparative and gender politics. She welcomes discussion on the topic and can be contacted at You can also find a unique take on the issues around sex work at a recent Pecha Kucha presentation she did, here:  (her presentations starts at 1:56). 

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