Canadian MP Francoise Boivin best summed up the impact of Bill C-36, a law introduced in Canada in 2014 that criminalises people paying prostitutes for sex, while still allowing prostitutes to go about their business. She said: “You’re permitting people to sell something that no one can buy.”
VICE documentary The New Era of Canadian Sex Work examines the consequences of that law, which replaced previous legislation viewed as harmful to sex workers. In the attempt to protect them, however, has the new law made their situation even worse?
On the investigation trail is stripper-turned-pop singer Lowell, who talks to those behind the bill as well as those affected by it, and compares the situation in Canada to that on the other side of the border in Nevada, where the sex industry is completely legal. Lowell brings her knowledge of the sex trade to the job and questions whether Bill C-36 has put more people in danger than it has helped.
The motivation behind changing the law is certainly well-intentioned, with parliamentarian Joy Smith talking about the high incidence of sexual trafficking. Four million women across the world are currently suffering in forced sexual labour, according to the International Labour Organization. In her view, very few sex workers engage in sex for money out of choice and “it’s a very violent, horrible existence for a lot of those girls.”
Bill C-36 treats those girls and women as victims, and its provisions are aimed at keeping them safe from predators and traffickers. As Lowell discovers, for those who view prostitution as their profession, they see the bill as wanting to take away their livelihood. Although not illegal for them to continue to be a sex worker, so many things associated with their trade – not being able to advertise through a third party, their clients committing a crime – are now illegal, meaning they are taking more risks than previously.
Other critics of the bill we hear from describe it as “puritanical” and “anti-sex”, and serving to “rip apart” and “demoralise” sex workers. Jean McDonald, the executive director of action project Maggie’s Toronto says, “The people that pushed through this legislation think that they’re saving us, but they’re not listening to us.” The New Era of Canadian Sex Work goes some way towards rectifying that.
Stream The New Era of Canadian Sex Work now at SBS On Demand: