Yesterday, Amnesty International published its policy supporting decriminalization of sex work to protect sex workers from human rights violations and abuses. The policy sends a clear message to the Canadian government: change this country’s sex work laws to abide by the state obligations Amnesty’s policy lays out.
Rights not rescue
The policy calls on governments to do more to protect people who do sex work from violations and abuse. It recommends the decriminalization of all aspects of adult consensual sex work, including removing those laws that prohibit purchasing sexual services, communicating for the purpose of selling sexual services, and general organization of sex work.
In short: laws must prioritize the health and safety and human rights of sex workers. In Canada, the laws do none of these things.
In 2013 the Supreme Court of Canada delivered a unanimous ruling striking down provisions in the Criminal Code criminalizing sex work.
A year later the federal government responded by enacting the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which introduced new laws around sex work, including criminalizing paying for sexual services.
Laws must prioritize the health and safety and human rights of sex workers. In Canada, the laws do none of these things.
The laws also prohibit many activities related to sex work, such as advertising and communicating in specific public places. Sex workers are now prohibited from working together with others in any kind of commercial enterprise — despite evidence that these environments can keep sex workers safer.
It’s a version of the Nordic model, an approach that focuses on criminalizing buyers, rather than sellers, of sex.
Amnesty International based its policy on more than two years of extensive consultations with sex workers and substantive evidence collection by the international body. That evidence included investigating human rights and sex workers in Norway, where the Nordic model was introduced in 2009.
“Sex workers in Norway which operates under the so-called Nordic model and focuses on criminalising buyers, rather than sellers of sex, told us that, in spite of high levels of rape and violence by clients, they seldom reported crimes to the police for fear of repercussions.
They said that the broad laws around sex work, including those that criminalise the promotion of sex work and letting out premises that will be used for sex work, mean that they are subjected to police scrutiny and are often penalised in order to stop sex work from taking place.
“One sex worker in Oslo told us 'The Norwegian police go after everybody. Not traffickers and pimps. But everybody. It's crazy.'
“Several of the women that we interviewed in Norway also described living in fear of being evicted from their accommodation. A significant number of evictions that we learned of were carried out by landlords fearing prosecution. Many such evictions were conducted in a matter of hours and in a way that would classify them as forced evictions which are illegal under international law.”
Criminalizing any aspect of sex work places sex workers in danger. It creates divisions between sex workers and police -- the ones who should be there to protect them.
In delivering its policy, Amnesty International is boldly standing in solidarity with sex workers in their fight for rights. It’s time for Canada to do the same.