By Julia Beazley, policy analyst
Saturday, December 6 was an historic day for Canada, and a day of deep personal reflection and gratitude for me. Canada’s new prostitution laws came into force, and for the first time in Canadian history, buying or attempting to buy sex is illegal.
These new laws represent a paradigm shift in law and policy, and eventually, we hope, in public attitude about prostitution. This shift is critical to achieving real success in reducing – and ultimately eliminating sexual exploitation.
By criminalizing the purchase of sex, the new laws directly challenge the long-held assumption that men are entitled to paid sexual access to primarily women and children’s bodies. It all also boldly refutes the notion that buying sex is an inevitable in our society, simply because it’s a practice that has ‘always been.’ By challenging the unchecked demand for paid sex, the new laws send the message that women and children are not, and should not be for sale. This approach effectively turns the historic treatment of prostitution on its head.
Legal and political treatment of prostitution – as well as public discourse on the subject – have long focused almost exclusively on those who are prostituted and how we should deal with them: as a public nuisance, as a threat to public health, and a source of community disruption. But sex buyers, who drive the demand that funnels women into prostitution and holds them there, have been largely invisible. These laws correctly identify demand as the driving force behind prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation. And they focus their attention on the purchasers and purveyors of prostitution – the buyers, pimps and traffickers.
The preamble to Bill C-36 states that prostitution is inherently exploitive and dangerous, that objectification of the human body and commodification of sexual activity causes social harm, and that prostitution violates both human dignity and equality between the sexes. These laws are a victory for women’s equality, because all women and girls are safer in a society where it is understood that they are not for sale.
The other important thing the new laws do is initiate a critical shift in how prostituted persons are viewed in law. Historically, those who are prostituted have been treated as a public nuisance. The new laws reframe this understanding, recognizing that the vast majority of individuals in prostitution are not there by choice. The Government has made it clear that in the spirit and intent of the law, those who are prostituted are to be seen as victims of exploitation, and are therefore afforded immunity from criminal charges, except under certain specific circumstances. It is not illegal to sell one’s own sexual services under the new laws, unless the selling takes place in a public location that is near a school, daycare or community centre.
The EFC remains concerned about the continued potential for criminalization of prostituted individuals, because criminalizing vulnerable individuals creates barriers to their exit from prostitution and further entrenches the inequality and marginalization that got them there.
This potential means the question of enforcement is an especially important one. How can we be sure that the spirit and intent of the new laws will be upheld when it comes to enforcement? We have asked that the Government develop standardized training for law enforcement, provincial Attorneys General and Crown Attorneys about the new treatment of prostitution under the laws, to support enforcement that is consistent with the intent of the legislation. Effective implementation will take time, co-operation and communication.
Along with the change in laws, the Government has made a commitment of $20-million to support programs assisting individuals exiting prostitution. While this funding will be paired with investments from the provinces, the amount will not be sufficient to meet the need across the country. It will be important that the Government engage with the provincial, territorial and municipal governments, along with a wide range of stakeholders – including faith communities – in the development of a comprehensive national plan to ensure the social policies and programs are in place to both prevent vulnerable individuals from entering prostitution and to support those who are in as they exit.
December 6, 2014 marks a significant milestone in our journey toward ending sexual exploitation, but it is certainly not the end. There is much work yet to do. The new laws will have a normative effect on society, but it will take time, and the laws can’t do it on their own. Already, the media are giving a great deal of attention to those who oppose them, so a meaningful cultural shift has yet to come. We need to continue to work together to change the way our society views prostitution, and actively challenge the attitudes and mindsets that creature the culture where prostitution is accepted and the demand for it flourishes.
And finding meaningful ways for the Church to engage in the lives of those who are exploited is now perhaps more important than ever. There will be more to do on the political front in terms of improving laws and government policies, but the Church has a role to play and, together with our partners at Defend Dignity, we are committed to helping equip her to do it well.
But today, we take time to celebrate what is a major turning point in the fight against exploitation, to celebrate with our allies and with our survivor teachers and friends. And certainly to thank all of you who prayed with us and for us, whose hearts were moved, and who were moved to take action. It is remarkable what can be accomplished when we work and pray together.
On a personal note, I am deeply grateful for all of the allies, co-labourers and co-belligerents along this journey – frontline agencies and service providers, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, advocacy groups, law enforcement and determined leaders in government – some who share our faith, and many who don’t. We found common ground and purpose, and committed to learning from and working together, and it was a very rich experience. And I am especially thankful for the many survivors and survivor organizations who allowed us to stand and fight alongside them. Each has taught me, challenged me, inspired me, equipped me and changed me in ways I will forever be grateful for.
Our work is not done. So we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with survivors, allies and the church community, and fight for freedom and justice for those who are oppressed, vulnerable and marginalized.