Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund calls for full decriminalization of adult sex work in Canada

Position letter criticized the conflation of sex work with trafficking in current sex work laws

Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund calls for full decriminalization of adult sex work in Canada

The Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) has published a position paper calling for the full decriminalization of adult sex work and proposing evidence- and human rights-based approach to sex work law reform in Canada.

In 2014, Parliament passed the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), which established Canada’s current sex work laws after the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the previous sex work laws in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford for violating sex workers’ Charter rights. The implementation of PCEPA criminalized clients and sex work exchange for the first time in Canada.

PCEPA’s legislative approach follows the “Nordic model,” which criminalizes purchasing sex work and people who benefit from the sex industry while protecting sex workers from prosecution in certain circumstances.

Currently, Canadian law criminalizes many aspects of sex work, including purchasing sexual services and materially benefitting from someone doing sex work. Pam Hrick, executive director & general counsel of LEAF, says the organization is concerned about the impact of criminalization on sex workers who are often gendered and racialized and face other intersecting systemic barriers, such as transphobia, ableism, and poverty.

The position paper highlighted evidence showing that criminalization and its targeting can lead to loss of housing, custody, and income support for sex workers. Hrick says the harms resulting from law enforcement’s interventions significantly affect Black, Indigenous, and racialized sex workers.

She informed Canadian Lawyer that in a 2019 Vancouver study, 72% of sex workers reported no improvements in working conditions since PCEPA was enacted, and 26% reported worsened conditions. “Decriminalizing sex work in Canada is an important and necessary first step to realizing the full rights and agency of sex workers.”

The letter also criticized the conflation of sex work with trafficking in the PCEPA, which experts widely disparage as harmful to sex workers and trafficking victims/survivors.

LEAF recommended that Canada repeal all sex work-specific provisions in the Criminal Code applicable to adult sex work and repeal immigration laws prohibiting temporary residents and foreign nationals from working in the sex industry.

In addition to criminal and immigration law reform, LEAF made several other recommendations, including that governments must ensure that social and income supports are accessible and barrier-free for sex workers; meaningfully consult with sex workers about laws and policies that directly impact their lives; and improve access to gender-affirming healthcare and services.

Historically, LEAF has not taken a position on sex work and abstained from intervening in litigation or making law reform submissions on sex work, which created a barrier to engaging in meaningful action or solidarity work with the sex work community.

“With the publication of this position, LEAF commits to further connecting with sex worker movements and organizations and adopting law reform recommendations and advocacy positions that are guided by and for sex workers, by evidence, and by human rights-based policy.”

LEAF will host a panel moderated by staff lawyer Rosel Kim on Apr. 28 to discuss the impact of Canada’s sex work laws on sex workers and gender equality.

The panel will feature Hrick, Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network, Jenn Clamen, National Coordinator at the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, Monica Forrester, program and outreach coordinator at Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. 

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