On the eve of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE) published a new report based on nine years of research evaluating the impact of Canada’s end-demand sex work laws on sex workers’ safety, health and human rights. December 2019 marks five years since the end-demand laws (known as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act or PCEPA) were enacted in Canada with a firm commitment to review the laws at five years.
On December 20th 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada in a landmark unanimous decision (Canada v Bedford) struck down prior prohibitive sex work laws for violating the right to security of the person. CGSHE was a co-intervenor in the Bedford case on the basis of AESHA evidence on the harms of former prohibitive laws restricting sex workers’ ability to negotiate safety, health and human rights. In December 2014, in blatant disregard of the Supreme Court of Canada Bedford decision and amid growing consensus by scientific and human rights bodies, the previous Conservative Federal Government enacted PCEPA. In addition to maintaining the criminalization of third parties and communication, thus replicating the former laws that had been struck down, PCEPA criminalized the purchase of sexual services for the first time in Canada.
Given growing scientific and human rights concerns regarding the wave of end-demand laws implemented in various countries globally, including in France, Norway and Sweden, researchers at CGSHE/University of British Columbia (UBC) aimed to use nine years of rigorous community-based research conducted before and after the sex work law reforms to understand whether and in what ways the new laws replicated the same harms as previous criminal laws in Canada. The team interviewed over 900 cis and trans women sex workers (working in both street and indoor sex work) on a bi-annual basis since 2010. In addition, the report draws on 200 in-depth expert interviews with third parties (including managers, owners and drivers), cis and trans male and gender non-binary sex workers, and clients (sex buyers) of all genders.
“The results are abundantly clear. End-demand laws in Canada are recreating the same conditions of harm and risks of violence as previous end-demand criminalization laws struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013. These laws prevent access to critical police protections, health and community protections,” says Dr. Kate Shannon, CGSHE Executive Director, UBC Professor and Canada Research Chair – Gender Equity. “We hope this report provides key evidence to a Canadian government committed to gender equity and addressing gender-based violence to align with global policy bodies and repeal these harmful laws (PCEPA).”
Of 907 sex workers interviewed, 76% reported that PCEPA reproduces the same harms to safety and working conditions as previous criminal laws. A further 26% reported increased harms to working conditions, including a reduced ability to screen prospective clients, reduced access to safer work spaces and reduced ability to access clients (which meant longer hours, less pay or having to forgo safety precautions).
Under end-demand (PCEPA) laws, we found:
Rates of reporting violence to police remain unchanged under PCEPA (2015-2018) vs pre-PCEPA (2010-2013) with only 38% of all sex workers reporting violence to police, and only 26% of violent incidents reported to police over the nine years
- Reasons for not reporting violence to police included: lack of trust and fear of police and the criminal justice system, concerns that sex workers do not have legal protections from violence under current laws, and immigration concerns (e.g. might affect citizenship application)
No improvements in access to health or community services under PCEPA
- In fact, there was a 41% reduction in access to health services and a 21% reduction in access to community-led services under PCEPA (2015-2018) vs pre-PCEPA (2010-2013)
Of 907 sex workers, 38% of sex workers hired/engaged third party administrative and security supports. Of that 38%, 56% used third party protections from previous aggressors
- Contrary to misconceptions, the majority of third parties were cisgender women and current or former sex workers
- Third party supports are linked to 84% increase in access to occupational health and safety protections, with a 31% decrease in access to third party protections under PCEPA
“Sex workers are still scared to report violence to the police. We keep hearing that the police have been very aggressive,” says DJ Joe, from Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV).
This report summarizes rigorous empirical evidence from nine years of CGSHE/UBC community-based research published in peer-reviewed journals on the continued harmful effects of Canada’s sex work laws on sex workers’ safety, health and human rights. Following global policy and human rights guidelines (endorsed by Amnesty International, WHO, UNAIDS, UNDP, Global Commission on HIV and the Law) and examples from New Zealand and parts of Australia, it is critical that the Canadian government repeals the PCEPA laws and decriminalizes sex work.
“Full decriminalization of sex work—removal of all laws targeting sex work—is necessary to ensure the safety, health and human rights of sex workers, including access to labour and other human rights protections afforded to all workers,” says Dr. Andrea Krüsi, CGSHE Research Scientist and UBC Assistant Professor.
Learn more about the Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity