Canadian Sex Workers Launch Court Challenge to Anti-Sex Work Laws

LOS ANGELES—A Canadian alliance of 25 sex worker rights groups has launched a court challenge to that country’s laws making sex work illegal. The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform is challenging the sex work ban on Constititional grounds, saying that the country’s laws “violate sex workers’ constitutional rights to security, personal autonomy, life, liberty, free expression, free association, and equality.”

The new challenge comes about a month after a petition to repeal anti-sex work laws in Canada launched by rights activist Rysa Kronebusch appeared to gather enough signatures to force a debate on the issue in parliament. 

In 2014, the Canadian parliament which was then ruled by the country’s Conservative Party passed a law that supposedly decriminalized sex work, but made purchasing sexual services a crime, as well as outlawing several other activities surrounding sex work. When the Liberal Party, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, won a majority of seats later that year, taking control of parliament, it pledged to “review” the law, known as the “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.”

But that review has never happened, and the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform says that the law did not, in practice, decriminalize sex work as well. 

“Sex workers are directly and indirectly criminalized and experience constant fear, stigma, discrimination, and other deleterious consequences of criminalization that prevent access to health, social, and legal services,” the group said in a statement posted online. “The criminalization of all elements of sex work also invites unwanted and unsolicited police presence in the lives of sex workers – particularly for Black, Indigenous, migrant and trans sex workers, and sex workers who use drugs, who are regularly profiled and targeted.”

Because the law criminalizes most aspects of sex work other than the services performed by sex workers themselves, sex workers have been forced underground, and remain fearful of reporting violence and other crimes against them to police.

In an op-ed for The Ottawa Citizen newspaper, Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform members Jenn Clamen and Sandra Ka Hon Chu argued that the anti-sex work laws violate the Canadian Constitutional rights to “life, liberty, security, equality, freedom of expression and freedom of association” for sex workers.

“Criminalizing communication and clients means sex workers cannot negotiate conditions and establish mutual consent to sexual activity, and screen and obtain important information from clients — vital practices for sex workers’ safety,” Clamen and Chu wrote.

But in a response to the Clamen/Chu op-ed, Queen’s University assistant law professor Debra M. Haak said that the anti-sex work laws simlpy regulate a form of commercial activity, which Parliament has a right to do. 

“To-date, Canadian courts have been reluctant to recognize a constitutionally protected right to engage in the commercial or economic activity of your choice,” Haak wrote in her own op-ed.

In a 2003 case, cited by Haak, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that individuals and businesses do not have a right to generate revenue by any means they choose. That case, Siemens v. Manitoba, involved a business that made money off of electronic lottery machines, even though video gambling was banned in the town where the business was located.

Photo By Andre Furtado / Pexels