The newest attempt to legislate the oldest profession confuses both prostitutes and police in the city.

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The newest attempt to legislate the oldest profession confuses both prostitutes and police in the city.

Controversial legislation was enacted Sunday, but the extent of activities prohibited by the new law are a mystery to women working the street and officers patrolling the street.

It's unclear whether the new law bans escort websites such as this one.

MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

It's unclear whether the new law bans escort websites such as this one.

"People are very worried and they don't know what the implications are," said Claudyne Chevrier, an ally and researcher at the Winnipeg Working Group, an advocacy group for sex-trade workers.

"We've reached out for answers but there has been no statement from the police or government on how they will roll out these new changes," she said.

Winnipeg police spokesman Const. Jason Michalyshen said the new laws may change how some investigations are handled.

"I am unable to provide any further details at this time as further meetings with the Crown are pending. In the coming weeks, we will have more clarification," he wrote in an email.

The legislation was drafted by the Conservative government after a Dec. 2013 ruling struck down Canada's existing prostitution legislation as unconstitutional. The new law appears to say johns can be arrested for buying sex while prostitutes won't be charged for selling it.

It's now illegal for prostitutes to communicate for the purposes of sex in a public space, but details of what is prohibited are anything but clear. For example, are escort websites now banned and how will that be enforced?

The Conservative government has said the new rules will help protect vulnerable sex workers who are victimized by the trade. But many advocates and sex workers say the new law will only increase the risk for sex workers by forcing them to meet with and screen potential johns behind closed doors rather than in the open.

Manitoba Justice Minister James Allum said while the province generally supports the bill, it has serious concerns about the communication rules because they re-victimize workers.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has opened the door to a potential constitutional challenge and Allum said his government may follow suit.

"It's certainly something that we would contemplate," he said.

"Ultimately, the courts will determine not only the constitutionality of the bill, but also speak to the issues that make implementation challenging," Allum said.

He also wants to see the federal government increase the $20 million it has already promised to help sex workers transition out of the trade.

"When spread across the country, it's not really sufficient to meet the needs of those who want to get out of the business," Allum said.

Chevrier said some of the women she works with in Winnipeg raised concerns about police being inconsistent when interacting with them. In one case, a woman who advertises sexual services online was contacted by someone in law enforcement and told her ads and website had to come down because they violated the new law, but that may not be true.

"My understanding of the new law is that they shouldn't be criminalizing the person who is advertising for his or her own services. It's the person who carries the advertising like the website or the newspaper they should be looking at," Chevrier said.

Kayla is an escort who works in Winnipeg. She said the new rules are unclear, but a lot of workers are couching their advertisements in innuendo.

"We've received emails about how we market and I've actually had to take my website down because they've tried to limit the content," Kayla said.

"Describing certain sessions, certain services; I can't do that anymore. I've had to change a lot of that. That's caused a lot of confusion and they (clients) can't read between the lines," she said.

Kayla said she chooses the trade willingly. "Nobody forced me into it. I'm not a victim. Nobody's taking money from me. I'm not paying somebody and there's no boogeyman in the picture," she said.

On the other side of the debate is Shona Stewart, the director of Dignity House, a charity that helps women transition out of the sex trade. A former prostitute, Stewart said most women who've left the trade favour the changes. "None of them wanted to be in it. It was survival. The ones who are working are saying that this law sucks, but the women who were in it and got out are actually saying that no, this law is a good thing," Stewart said.

jesse.winter@freepress.mb.ca