C-36: Some initial thoughts on Canada’s new prostitution bill

Most of you are likely aware by now that Canada’s federal government has unveiled their new prostitution bill. I wrote about it for VICE this week and based on talking to a number of women on the issue, here are the conclusions I’ve come to for the time being. I say “for the time being” because I think at this point we’re still speculating about the purpose of one particular (problematic) provision.

Ok. So first a very brief summary of key aspects of the proposed legislation, called Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act:

– buying sex is criminalized

– pimping is criminalized

– advertising for sexual services is criminalized unless it is the prostitute themselves who is doing the advertising

– prostituted people are decriminalized BUT there is a communication provision in there that leaves open the possibility to criminalize the sale of sex if it is being sold in a public area where there might be children around.

The purpose of the bill is to target the exploiters. It explicitly challenges men’s right to buy sex and positions women in prostitution as victims, not criminals. There is money ($20 million, which I’m not convinced is enough) for exiting services and to support front-line work. The language used in the bill is very heartening and actually states that prostitution is inherently exploitative (which it is), that it “has a disproportionate impact on women and children,” and that “the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual activity” causes “social harm.” It explicitly names demand as the problem which needs to be addressed: “it is important to denounce and prohibit the purchase of sexual services because it creates a demand for prostitution.”

All of this kind of thrills me. This language is explicitly feminist in that it names men as the problem and points to gender inequality as a key factor in terms of why prostitution exists in the first place and in terms of who is exploited in prostitution.

What is troubling is the communication provision. We don’t know why it’s there and we don’t know how it might play out in real life. It’s possible that “think of the children!” was stuck in there to appease Conservative voters who are concerned about prostitution happening around kids or in their (wealthy) neighbourhoods (meaning it could be a NIMBY provision). It’s also possible that the provision is just an excuse to leave the door open to criminalize the most vulnerable — women working on the streets, Aboriginal women. It’s possible that, as promised, the focus will remain on criminalizing the pimps and johns and that the women will be left alone but if that was the intention, it would be great to take that communication provision out entirely. It could simply be applied to buyers, not sellers — I see no real need to criminalize the women even if it were a NIMBY law (which I don’t support, for the record — just trying to get inside the brains of Conservatives…).

So. There are very good things in the bill and there is a potentially bad thing in the bill. It isn’t, in my opinion, accurate to say that Canada has adopted the Nordic model, though we are much closer than we were previously. The Nordic model does not include a provision that could potentially criminalize prostituted people if in a a public place “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present.” But the reality is that we are in a better position to advocate for what we want now than if, for example, the proposal were to fully decriminalize or if it weren’t so specific in its intention to target demand and support women. I would like to see a commitment to reeducating the police in order to ensure they actually focus on the johns and both leave prostitutes alone and support them if they need support. This is a key part of the Swedish model. It’s also, of course, important to remind ourselves that Sweden has stronger social safety nets and a better welfare system than Canada does and so we need to keep the pressure on in regard to all of these aspects.

I’m particularly unimpressed by certain leftists who have continued to actively spread lies around about the Nordic model and the goals of abolitionists and of this bill. This, for example, is absolutely manipulative:

“Like the failed Nordic model, this made-in-Canada approach criminalizes the clients of sex workers, while ostensibly trying to convince sex workers to stop commodifying their bodies, in a hopeless attempt to end the sex trade.”

1) The Nordic model has been very successful in terms of curbing demand and helping prostitutes exit the industry. To call it a failure is an outright lie. Check your integrity and journalistic ethics, folks.

2) The goal of abolitionists, the Nordic model, and the proposed Canadian model has absolutely nothing to do with convincing sex workers of anything. The goal is explicitly to target the johns and exploiters.

I have zero respect for people who are promoting and sharing this kind of bullshit and suggest that if you’re going to take a stance, you might start by actually reading the bill.

I’m going to continue thinking and learning about possible impacts and outcomes and so these initial thoughts may change as we move forward. I’m looking forward to hearing all of your thoughts and concerns as well but will note that I’m seeing a lot of folks completely dismissing the bill as “bad” without having even looked at it, which doesn’t feel particularly productive to me.

What would be productive, in my opinion, would be to work together to put pressure on the government and opposition parties to challenge the communication provision and be vocal about our support for the aspects of the bill that confront male power and privilege and work against the exploitative sex industry.

Meghan Murphy

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Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.