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Type of submission: Oral
Conference track: Policy
Topics: Punitive Laws and Law Enforcement; Sex Work and Harm Reduction
Presenting author: Jenn Clamen
Sex workers have organized formally in North America since the 1970s. In Canada, the problems of criminalization were identified as key contributors to violence, discrimination and stigma. The 80s/90s focused on bodily autonomy, health, pride and labour. The 2000s shifted towards harm and human rights. Throughout, decriminalization has been cited as a necessary, but not sufficient condition to promote the needs and rights for sex workers.
In 2010, the Ontario Superior Court ruled to strike down key prostitution laws because they contribute to violence experienced by sex workers. This acknowledged sex workers’ health and safety as a human right and propelled sex workers’ visibility, and capacity to mobilize in different ways. The Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2013 affirmed what sex workers in Canada had been saying for decades, and essentially fueled the esteem of the movement.
The win was short lived. In 2014 the Conservative government introduced a harsher criminalized regime, ignoring the SCC decision. Claiming to “criminalize clients and decriminalize sex workers”, this “Nordic-inspired” regime has criminalized sex workers, particularly those who are Asian, migrant, Indigenous or working indoors, reproducing harms recognized in Bedford.
While advocacy is a priority within Stella, law reform has necessitated a more collective approach. The emergence of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform has provided space for Stella to fight with a more unified voice for safer working and living conditions for sex workers, thus facilitating engagement with lawmakers. Engaging systems that have historically and continue to oppress marginalized communities has raised questions, including how to challenge powerful systems while maintaining and honoring our identity, knowledge and process.
This presentation presents the context for Canadian law reform post C-36, the impacts of the new criminalized regime, and some lessons learned about engaging in national activism for decriminalization of sex work.