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Clouds form a backdrop for the buildings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Clouds form a backdrop for the buildings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

JANE DOE

Why the prostitution bill will increase violence against sex workers Add to ...

Jane Doe is an author, lecturer and feminist activist.

Among other things, I am the woman in the civil case Jane Doe v the Toronto Police Force. In 1998, after an 11-year court battle, I successfully sued them for negligence and gender discrimination in their investigation of my rape, and of sexual assault generally.

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The position I effectively argued was that under the Canadian Charter, women have the right to live free from violence, or the threat of violence in their lives. A right that applies to all women, including sex workers.

When Bedford v Canada entered the legal system I convened the Feminist Coalition to ensure that all feminist voices were part of the legal and social dialogue on sex work. Our membership is national and consists of 23 sexual assault/rape crisis centres, women's shelters and other anti-violence organizations. Our affidavit and leave to intervene in Bedford at the Supreme Court are public documents which contain a full list of our membership.

It is our opinion, as reflected in those documents, that former and proposed prostitution legislation does not work in women’s equality interests and promotes –even causes – violence against sex workers. We are concerned that Bill C-36 does not reflect the policies and opinions of the majority of front line anti-violence agencies. Instead, Justice Minister Peter MacKay relies solely on opinions of the umbrella group members of the abolitionist Women’s Coalition, which purports to represent all of us.

Bill C-36 supports the spurious concept that prostitution causes sexual assault and other violence against women. Sexual Assault is about power and dominance and is not caused by sex work. Certainly mine was not. Nor is there any qualified thought, research or lived experience to say otherwise. Most grievously, the bill ignores the systemic nature of violence against all women. Feminist battles against systemic discrimination resulted in the right to equal wages, fair labour practices, and protection from gendered violence against all women. Except, according to the bill, for women who are sex workers.

We hold that accordance with the bill will result in an increase of sex workers seeking support from our centres and shelters and in particular for aboriginal, racialized, trans and street-based sex workers who are most impacted by violence. Forcing women to work in isolated areas where they cannot screen clients, prohibiting indoor workers to advertise or work with security, inducing clients to resist engaging in the very forms of communication that the Supreme Court ruled as critical to sex workers safety, will turn the legislation itself into a form of gender violence.

In contrast, we believe that Bill C-36 will result in a decrease of the number of women who report sexual violence to the police. It is accepted that the vast majority of women do not report citing fear of the police investigation and the court process. Where is the logic in a bill that is sure to further silence sex workers in that regard?

The proposed legislation denies women’s right to bodily autonomy, a core concept, enshrined in law, of any feminist or anti-violence strategy, and most obvious in Canada’s abortion legislation. It infantilizes grown women who are sex workers, and locates them as damaged victims, in need of rescue only, versus adults capable of exercising choice (good or bad) and an ability to act in their own best interests. Bill C36 conflates women and children, trafficking and prostitution, when it is clear that they are separate and distinct populations. Combining them results in inadequate service for all and willfully ignores current strong and internationally praised Canadian legislation regarding children and trafficked persons.

Feminists agree that Aboriginal, racialized, trans and street-based sex workers in particular will engage in prostitution because of limitations on their options. If we are serious however, what good does it do to support legislation that ignores viable options? Who benefits from legislation minus funding to address poverty, racism and colonialism; legislation that does not address housing, healthcare, universal daycare and other rights for the most marginalized of women? We can all also agree that exit programs are not able, designed, or financed to address any of those systemic issues. Nor does Bill C-36 provide for accountable training of police officers and other legal players charged to uphold it.

Because of the harms inherent in the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, also contained in prior legislation, the Feminist Coalition supports the full decriminalization of prostitution as an alternative to that bill. We have recommended to the courts and the Justice Committee that sex workers, active in the trade, and their allies give direction and hold a central position in determining the nature and regulation of decriminalization - especially regarding women’s equality - and in adherence with established constitutional, human and labour rights.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 11 years to affirm the Supreme Courts decision in Bedford. Years in which women who are sex workers are sure to experience increased violence as the result of bad law.

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