The sex trade industry is broad and encompasses a variety of activities including escort services, street-level sex workers, pornography, exotic dancing, massage, internet work, phone sex operators and third-party support (drivers, managers, bartenders etc.).
The laws in Canada about sex work and prostitution are currently being challenged in court. “Prostitution” itself is legal in Canada but there are several laws related to it that make conducting sex work difficult. (Note: prostitution is a very specific type of sex work and is used mostly as a legal term within the sex worker community; sex trade or sex work is the preferred term).
In the Criminal Code, there are four sections directly related to sex work:
Section 213 makes “communicating for the purpose of prostitution” illegal. This means that you cannot talk about the exchange of money (or any goods/services) for sex in a public place. Discussion on the phone or internet is generally considered legal so many sex workers will make their arrangements on the phone/on-line even if meeting the client in a public place.
Sections 210 and 211 refer to “bawdy houses” or a place to have sex (based on Victorian-era laws about brothels). It is illegal to keep a common bawdy house, be found in one (whether worker, client or visitor) or to direct or take someone to one (i.e. taxi drivers).
Section 212 prohibits “living on the avails of prostitution” or “procuring prostitution.” While this law is designed to prevent exploitation (e.g. pimps, human traffickers) it is very broad. For example, a sex worker cannot ask another sex worker to join him or her with a client or refer a client to another sex worker. All roommates, family members, friends and partners living with a sex worker must prove that they are not dependent upon the sex worker’s income (even if they have no relationship to the work).
For some people, sex work stems from a background of poverty, addiction, lack of education and abuse. A significant number of sex workers are survivors of sexual abuse including rape, sexual assault and incest. Additionally, many sex workers have been part of the child welfare system (adoption, foster care, juvenile detention) in their youth or childhood.
For some people, however, becoming a sex worker is a conscious and informed act or choice; this is particularly true for people engaged in higher-end work including exotic dancing, pornography and private escort services.
Sex work, and therefore sex workers, are often victimized and marginalized. Violence against sex workers is continual and for women working on the street especially the fear of kidnapping, rape, physical assault, theft and harassment is constant. Despite sex work being mostly legal in Canada, moralization of sex work – especially as it pertains to women – often causes problems and leads to arrests and harassments. Businesses and neighbourhoods may protest visibility of street level sex work in the area, leading police to conduct sweeps.
Some people experiencing homelessness turn to sex work as means of staying alive or obtaining the necessities of life. Known as “survival sex” this includes the exchange of sex for money, as well as food, clothing, shelter or a place to stay. This is particularly common amongst female street youth, but also affects men, women and transgendered individuals of all ages.
The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is celebrated annually on December 17th. The day, originally organized by the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA (SWOP-USA) started to honour the deaths of the women killed by the Green River Killer in Seattle Washington, Gary Leon Ridgway. Events are now held across the world. The Red Umbrella has been adopted as a symbol of sex worker rights after first being used by Venetian sex workers in 2002.