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Letter: It’s time to decriminalize the sex-trade in Canada

Customers, not sex workers, are causing the problems for residents in the Long’s Hill area of St. John’s, says “Rachel,” a sex worker.
Last week in The Telegram, a three-part series by David Maher focused on efforts to make one St. John’s neighbourhood safer for sex workers and other residents. — Telegram file photo

I was inspired to write this op-ed piece when I stumbled upon David Maher’s series in The Telegram last week covering the sex trade in St. John’s.

Some of the most progressive policies adopted into the Liberal Party of Canada’s platform have been those brought forward by its youth wing, the Young Liberals of Canada. These policies have included the legalization of same sex marriage, and the legalization of marijuana, the latter of which will be implemented in the coming months.

While some of these policies didn’t initially garner support when they appeared on convention floor, Young Liberals persisted. And they won. Perhaps, now, this impressive list of victories will include the decriminalization of the sex trade, which will be on the table at the Liberal Party of Canada’s Biennial Convention in Halifax this April.

Criminalization also puts strain on the relationship between sex workers, law enforcement and health services, which will make them less likely to seek medical services or to report abuse or exploitation.

When the Memorial University Liberals were given the opportunity to submit a piece of policy for the convention, one of the first ideas considered was the decriminalization of the sex trade. To us, this is a glaring gap in our government’s feminist agenda. We sought answers from those who know the local sex trade best, the Safe Harbour Outreach Project. They welcomed our club to the St. John’s Status of Women HQ in St. John’s, and immersed us in all of the flaws and gaps in the current legislation. It was here that we learned just how detrimental the criminalization of sex work has on the livelihood of sex workers and their safety.

In our policy submission, we highlighted that criminalization forces sex workers into circumstances which reduce the control they have over their working conditions in many ways. First, the prohibition of public communication regarding sexual services often pushes sex workers (especially the most marginalized) to unsafe working conditions, limits the ability to screen clients and to negotiate terms of transaction. Criminalization renders sex workers unable to seek the services of third parties, which may offer protection through security, reception services and access to “Bad Date” lists that alert sex workers to potential threats. Criminalization also puts strain on the relationship between sex workers, law enforcement and health services, which will make them less likely to seek medical services or to report abuse or exploitation.

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Our recommendation? Begin a review committee that consists of all relevant stakeholders, including sex workers and organizations that provide support and advocacy for sex workers. Additionally, that the government study effective reform, including decriminalization models such as that of New Zealand.

Our policy submission, which was merged with a similar policy written by the University of Toronto Young Liberals, will reach the convention floor. Should this pass, it will inform the Liberal Party of Canada’s 2019 platform, and take an important and necessary step toward addressing the challenges facing sex workers in our province.

The respect and support that the Liberal Party of Canada has for its youth wing is unparalleled in all major parties in Canada. With this support, we will continue to put progressive policies at the forefront of our organization and keep working towards a fair and equitable Canada.

Lauren Hayes, president
Memorial University Young Liberals (federal branch)
Mount Pearl

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