VANCOUVER – Odd nighttime hours, secluded areas of the city and a pervasive reluctance to report safety concerns were all conditions a Vancouver woman who calls herself Chili Bean used to face on the job.
The retired sex worker’s concerns were addressed when Canada’s highest court ruled last fall that the laws perpetuating the risky work atmosphere for those in the sex trade violates their Charter Rights. But now she worries new laws about to be unveiled by the federal government won’t be an improvement.
A study published Tuesday out of British Columbia has concluded that even when Vancouver police targeted just clients of prostitution and pimps with arrests, city sex workers endured virtually the same rates of physical and sexual violence.
“The old laws made sex work dangerous for myself and other workers,” said Chili Bean. “What I don’t want now is to see us go back to the same dangerous situation.”
Justice Minister Peter MacKay said earlier this week the forthcoming legislation intends to take a Made-in-Canada approach to protecting vulnerable individuals and shield them from exploitation. But MacKay said buying sex will still be illegal.
Katrina Pacey, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, which published a complementary legal analysis also released Tuesday, said the minister is glossing over an enormous body of evidence that contradicts the conclusion that the new bill will protect vulnerable sex workers.
“This government is about to propose legislation that is speaking to a law-and-order agenda and is not consistent with human rights or with the leading evidence,” she said.
Advocates and the study’s authors are calling on the government to acknowledge their findings and reconsider new prostitution legislation that is expected as early as Wednesday. They argue the current policing approach in Vancouver is not making women safer and that the reality-based example should be applied to the new regulations.
It was prompted after the Supreme Court of Canada ordered the government to craft new measures around the sale of sex when it struck down the current provisions in December 2013. The ruling found the laws didn’t uphold sex worker’s constitutional guarantee of life, liberty and security.
Lawyers are already preparing to take the government back to court, based on the expectation the new legislation will not stand up to constitutional scrutiny, Pacey said.
MacKay’s press secretary declined an interview and said she will address more questions after the legislation is revealed.
The main study was expedited for publication in the online British Medical Journal Open ahead of the expected bill. Its authors examined statistics and interviewed 31 street-based sex workers about their experiences following the Vancouver Police Department’s decision to install new enforcement guidelines in January 2013.
The new policy saw a jump of 71 arrests of mainly sex-worker clients last year from 47 in 2012. But rates of work-related physical and sexual violence were nearly unchanged, with a quarter of the sex workers facing harm in the years before and after the policy change.
The study found that the key issues unresolved by only targeting clients were that sex workers in Vancouver remained unable to screen or negotiate with clients, that they were pushed to work in isolated spaces and were unable to access police protection.
A spokesman for the Vancouver Police Department said a carefully analysis of the study was needed before making any comment.
Decriminalizing prostitution is the only approach that will protect women, said Dr. Kate Shannon, the study’s senior author, who works for the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.
“The criminalization of the purchasing of sex in Canada really risks recreating the same harms that we’ve heard over the last two decades of missing and murdered women,” she said.
There’s been at least three murders of sex-workers in B.C. over the past year, she said, and 11 homicides remain unsolved over the past ten years.
Further, the country most closely resembling Canada’s incoming law, Sweden, which pioneered the so-called “Nordic” model, has had a documented increase in violence against sex workers and no declining demand for the industry over 15 years, said Kerry Porth, who’s also with Pivot.
“It hasn’t worked in other countries and it won’t work here,” Porth said. “Sex workers will continue to die.”
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