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This article was published 7/12/2016 (1547 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
TWO important Winnipeg agencies may be at odds over how to approach the harm of sex work.
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority issued a position statement last week calling for decriminalization of sex work between consenting adults as a necessary step to promote the health and human rights of sex workers. This statement echoes the position taken by major public health organizations, including the World Health Organization and the Canadian Public Health Association.
The Winnipeg Police Service, meanwhile, noted in its quarterly report to the Winnipeg Police Board this week the number of people involved in street solicitation has dropped significantly in recent years. But the report goes on to state the Internet has expanded the size of the sex industry and created a whole new class of workers involved through indoor work: those who initiate sexual-service transactions online. The report implies more police resources are needed to keep up with the more technologically savvy sex industry.
In late 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada declared unconstitutional those federal laws that prohibit street solicitation, living off the avails of prostitution and keeping a bawdy house. Noting transactional sex between adults was not an illegal act, the court found these laws created unsafe conditions and prevented sex workers from taking steps to reduce risks. In so doing, the laws denied sex workers their constitutionally protected right to "security of the person."
The federal government responded in late 2014 by making it an offence, for the first time in Canada’s history, to offer to purchase or to purchase sexual services from another adult. In a move many believed to be unconstitutional, the government also substantially re-enacted laws prohibiting street solicitation by sellers or buyers and keeping a bawdy house. The government’s action was animated by the belief all sex work is inherently exploitative.
The police report simply demonstrates Winnipeg police are doing their job by enforcing the new criminal law. However, there is wide variation in prostitution law enforcement strategies across Canada and even in different neighbourhoods within the same metropolitan area.
For example, the Vancouver Police Department sex-work policy explicitly states consensual transactional sex is not an enforcement priority. Researchers have heard the Toronto police, on the other hand, regularly conduct warrantless inspections of massage parlours, ostensibly to ensure they comply with city health bylaws. But women working in these establishments have told researchers they believe the main purpose of the inspections is to look for evidence of sex work, such as condoms and lubricant.
It is hard to ignore the profound negative consequences of criminal laws prohibiting consensual transactions between adults on sex workers’ safety. Over the past two decades, urban centres have experienced epidemics of violence against street-based sex workers.
It must be acknowledged that as many as 70 per cent of those involved in street-level work in Winnipeg are indigenous, and many are children. Girls and women become involved because it is one of the few ways they have to ensure they are fed, housed and clothed. Some indigenous organizations resolutely believe criminalization will end demand, but others believe the immediate dangers to the safety and health of women and girls are so significant, harm reduction rather than abolitionist approaches must be pursued.
Indoor work is preferred by most participants to outdoor work, because historically it has been largely ignored by law enforcement. It is also much easier when working indoors to insist clients use condoms. However, since the 2014 amendments, researchers in both Vancouver and Toronto have found some managers of indoor venues, such as massage parlours, are now refusing to allow sex workers to keep condoms on-site. If found, police might use the condoms as evidence of sex work. This emerging practice is nothing short of a public-health disaster in the making.
Every credible human rights organization in Canada supports criminalizing payment for sex with minors and the trafficking, coercion or exploitation of adults in the sex industry. But these organizations are split over whether all sex work should be criminalized. Given the tension between the health authority’s policy and Winnipeg police practices, we need these agencies to meet with indigenous women’s organizations, sex workers’ organizations and front-line service providers to discuss practically and pragmatically how to reduce the health and safety risks faced by local sex workers.
Karen Busby is a law professor and the academic director of the Centre for Human Rights Research at the University of Manitoba.