When is Justin Trudeau going to make a priority of sex workers' safety?

Last month, Liberals from across the country gathered in Halifax for the party’s biannual national convention. It was a time to network, to debate contentious issues and, most importantly, to set the tone for the party platform moving forward. 

While a number of items were slated on the agenda, one of the thorniest involves how the government plans to tackle the issue of consensual, adult sex work.

A political hot potato, the Liberals took a hard stance against our former federal government's ill-conceived “solution” to sex work. They stood firmly in opposition to Bill C-36, otherwise known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.  

During the election campaign, the Liberals also made pledges to support the decriminalization of sex work. However, upon assuming government, that pledge appeared to take a back seat to more pressing issues, like the legalization of marijuana and the radical overhaul of our criminal justice system.

But we should not lose focus on this important topic, and in the wake of the national convention, it should remain on the forefront of our government’s political agenda. After all, the ongoing criminalization of sex work in this country is causing real harm to real people. 

This is particularly so due to the recent passage of two controversial bills south of the border: Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Fight Sex Trafficking Online Act , or SESTA/FOSTA

While these bills were designed to stop human trafficking, it seems that they are doing more to displace advertisements related to consensual sex work than anything else. 

Almost immediately after SESTA/FOSTA passed, Backpage, a popular site used by people who engage in the sex trade, was shut down. Dozens of other online advertisement boards and social networks used by sex workers went dark. These sites were used by sex workers to verify client identities and warn each other about bad dates. 

SESTA/FOSTA  have severely inhibited the ability of adult, consensual sex workers in accessing global, online platforms in order to screen clients and communicate freely. 

This has come as a major blow to the sex work community throughout the world. 

But here in Canada, it has created a compounding affect, as it puts sex workers in an even more precarious position given the troublesome legal framework that they are required to work under.

Time and time again, we hear sex workers in Canada speaking out against the laws that restrict their trade. 

They say that these laws, which were designed by the Conservative government in an attempt to protect them, are actually doing just the opposite. 

For example, as a result of laws that criminalize their clients, sex workers are forced to work in more dangerous and isolated conditions. Due to the fear of arrest, they cannot communicate openly or freely with their clients, who are often in a hurry or unwilling to reveal their identity.

Sex workers are less likely to hire protective agents, such as drivers, bodyguards, spotters, or booking agents.  

These factors undermine the ability of sex workers to effectively screen clients and set important ground rules and expectations about the transaction. It can lead to misunderstandings, which, in turn, can lead to security and safety breaches.

The laws also deepen the divide between sex workers and law enforcement. 

By creating an environment in which sex workers are not only worried about being charged with a crime themselves, but are also worried about the security of their clients, they are far less likely to speak out after experiencing violence or abuse.

They are less likely to report instances of human trafficking and exploitation as they relate to themselves or others. Under this model, sex workers are confronted with the double-bind of being concerned with their own dignity, security and privacy, as well as their clients. 

It does nothing to achieve the objective of protecting vulnerable populations or communities. 

The ongoing prohibition against sex work in this country compromises the overall safety, security, autonomy, and dignity of sex workers, which is only worsened by international legislation like SESTA/FOSTA.

Sex workers deserve the same protections and rights as any other member of society. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled as much in the 2013 decision of Canada v. Bedford.

But as long as the Liberals continue to put the interests of sex workers on the back burner, they will continue to suffer. 

Given the current international political climate, it is high time for our government to take action on this important issue.

Read the article as it appears in The Georgia Straight here

Sarah Leamon