Groups representing sex-trade workers launch legal challenge of Canada's prostitution laws

·4 min read
Tiffany Anwar of London, Ont., ran an escort agency with her husband. She's named in an Ontario claim filed in court on Tuesday to challenge Canada's prostitution laws. (Supplied by Tiffany Anwar - image credit)
Tiffany Anwar of London, Ont., ran an escort agency with her husband. She's named in an Ontario claim filed in court on Tuesday to challenge Canada's prostitution laws. (Supplied by Tiffany Anwar - image credit)

A former escort agency owner, several workers in the sex trade as well as a group that advocates for law reform are part of an alliance that has launched a legal challenge of Canada's prostitution laws.

The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, which represents 25 groups that work with members of the sex trade, filed legal paperwork Tuesday in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

Groups in Yukon, Vancouver and London, Ont., along with six current or former sex-trade workers, are among those involved in the legal fight. They argue the laws violate provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"We've launched a constitutional challenge to most of the sex-work provisions that were implemented in 2004 under the Protection for Communities and Exploited Persons Act," said Jenn Clamen, a spokesperson for the alliance.

"Sex workers are still living in a criminal regime and they're still working in that criminal regime, and it's been difficult."

None of the claims have been proven in court.

CBC is reaching out to the Department of Justice Canada.

Canada's prostitution laws, which came into effect in 2014, set out to decriminalize the sex trade, on the premise such work is inherently exploitative, but those involved in the new legal challenge are disputing the government's take on the trade.

The new laws criminalized communicating for the purpose of offering sexual services, purchasing sexual services, receiving financial or other benefits from the purchase of sexual services, recruiting a person for sex work, and advertising the sale of sexual services of others.

'Not inherently violent'

The new laws also decriminalized the sale and advertising of one's own sexual services. The model of criminalizing only the purchase of sex, not the selling of it, has been referred to as the Nordic Model of sex work because it originated in Sweden. Canada is among several countries that have adopted the model.

But advocates say the laws under that model have pushed sex-trade work further underground and into more isolated areas, making it more dangerous, according to the legal documents filed by the alliance.

"Sex work is not inherently violent, but criminalization produces conditions that create vulnerabilities to targeted and gendered violence and other abuses," the paperwork says.

A sex-trade worker covers her face with a mask at her workplace in Germany, where the trade is legal and regulated, unlike Canada, which has decriminalized parts of its prostitution laws.
A sex-trade worker covers her face with a mask at her workplace in Germany, where the trade is legal and regulated, unlike Canada, which has decriminalized parts of its prostitution laws. (The Associated Press)

"People exercise their agency to sell and exchange sexual services for different reasons, including to generate income, and their person circumstances are diverse."

The paperwork also says third parties, such as escort agencies or massage parlours, "provide vital services and supports to sex workers, notably for the most marginalized sex workers who do not have the resources to work independently or hire their own supports."

The current laws deprive sex workers of the right to security of person by inhibiting or prohibiting where and how they can work, thereby exposing them to increased physical and psychological harm, the claim states.

The criminalization of sex-trade work also contributes to stigma, which leads to violence and discrimination, and increases the likelihood of non-payment and unsafe encounters, said Clamen.

"The pandemic has just exacerbated the already difficult conditions that sex workers are living in," she said.

Sex workers, escort agency owner

Named in the Ontario claim are six sex-trade workers who make a living in a variety of jobs, some indoors and others outdoors. Also named is Tiffany Anwar, an Ontario woman who ran an escort agency in London with her husband.

In February 2020, an Ontario court judge ruled three of the charges against Anwar and her husband violated the charter.

In Canada, anyone purchasing sex can be charged criminally, but those who sell their own services wouldn't face penalties.
In Canada, anyone purchasing sex can be charged criminally, but those who sell their own services wouldn't face penalties. (Shutterstock)

The ruling only applied to that particular case, but did send an important precedent.

In his ruling, the judge said the laws were so broad, they prohibited sex-trade members to work co-operatively with each other or with others in non-exploitative relationships, and exposed workers to an increased risk of exploitation.

"This challenge is about recognizing that the health and safety of people who work in the sex industry, most of whom are women, is important," Anwar told CBC News. "They have a right to a safe working environment, and decriminalization of the industry is an important step to safety and good working conditions."

Anwar would like to open another escort agency with her husband, but cannot because of the current legal provisions, she said.

"Right now sex workers can't work collaboratively with third parties, so these laws criminalize managers, receptionists, security personnel. Third parties provide vital support."

Anwar said she and her husband fought to get the charter challenge off the ground, and wanted as many sex-trade workers as possible represented.

"It only made sense to get current sex workers and their organizations involved in this case," she said.