Seats filled up quickly last week at UTM’s final feminist lunch hour on Canada’s new prostitution laws.
The lunch, presented jointly by the WGS department and the Equity and Diversity Office, focused on the laws that went into effect in December, with a talk led by Professor Mariana Valverde from the Centre for Criminology and Sociology at St. George.
Valverde began by saying that she does not support the new laws and finds them just as outdated as those struck down in 2013. The foundation for these laws is the premise that criminalizing the sale or purchase of sex work will eliminate it, said Valverde, who added that this is not true.
For over 20 years the Supreme Court has been rewriting laws that do not adhere to the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, but can only rewrite or strike down a law if there is substantial proof that the current law in place creates harm. Valverde argued that the new laws in fact make it more difficult for sex workers. The Supreme Court argued that sex work presents harm according to the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act—in which, said Valverde, the communities come first and the exploited persons come second. The Supreme Court claimed to be looking out for the “quality of all Canadians” but the language of the act is de-gendered, using phrases such as the “objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual activity”, said Valverde, which she says marginalize sex workers.
The laws criminalize those who purchase sex, but Valverde argued that they do not assume the innocence of sex workers. Moreover, she said, the result of the new focus is that customers will most likely be paranoid and hence refuse to give their names and only agree to meet the women in secluded areas that are more dangerous for the women.
“I have been interested in this issue for 25 years because positive reform and legal change was taking place in many other areas aside from prostitution,” said Valverde in an interview after the talk.
Since Valverde is a tenured professor, she says she wants to use her academic freedom to speak without repercussion. She believes the consequences for escort services, which are harder-hit because the laws stipulate that sex workers can now only work alone, were calculated to please anti-prostitution groups.
A supporting paper published by the Department of Justice had a bias against sex workers, she claims, and “cites someone who has been proven to not be credible, that shows ideology and propaganda”.
That said, Valverde said there will only be backlash if police officers actively enforce the new laws. If officers continue to do what they’re doing now, Valverde doesn’t see any reason for a protest.
Her ideal version of the law excludes the section with limits on those who “derive material benefit” from sex work and would give prostitutes more freedom to advertise their services. “Customers would still be liable,” she says.
In December, Premier Kathleen Wynne asked the attorney general to review Canada’s new prostitution law after voicing her concern that “this legislation will not make sex workers safer”.