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Sex Work Activist Naomi Sayers says the Harper government’s legislation forces sex workers underground into unsafe working conditions

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. In Canada, new rules came into effect this year concerning the world’s oldest profession, prostitution. The new laws prohibit brothels, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public with clients. These new rules came a year after Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that similar laws violated prostitutes’ rights to safety and were deemed unconstitutional. We should remind our viewers that prostitution is technically legal in Canada, so this new law makes it illegal to buy sex, although it’s perfectly legal to sell it. Now joining us to help us unravel this conundrum is our guest, Naomi Sayers. Naomi is a sex work activist and an indigenous feminist, and she recently testified against the bill before a parliamentary committee. Thank you so much for joining us, Naomi. NAOMI SAYERS, SEX WORK ACTIVIST: Thank you for having me. DESVARIEUX: So, Naomi, it’s pretty clear that you’re against this bill. Just quickly give us a sense of some bullet points as to why you’re against this bill. SAYERS: Yeah. So the bill actually became law on December 6, and the act is entitled the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. And the reason I’m against this bill is because it will not protect anybody. The four main points that demonstrate this is that it disempowers sex workers from not being able to control their working conditions. It pushes the most marginalized and vulnerable women, like indigenous women, racialized women, or migrant workers further to the periphery and away from protection and safety. And it also prevents sex workers from effectively screening their clients. And from this, predators who prey on sex workers already know that they will be more likely to–sex workers will be pushed to accept clients who will be like, I won’t give you that information, because I carry the risk now. But then that puts sex workers at risk. DESVARIEUX: Okay. And, Naomi, obviously you’re aware the bill is called the Protections of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. And from what I just heard, you clearly don’t agree that it protects exploited people. But the advocates, the people who are behind this bill, say that the business is inherently dangerous and it’s exploitative and we really need to protect sexually exploited people, such as sexually trafficked individuals. Don’t you agree that prostitution can be dangerous and exploitative, which is why many sex workers need bodyguards, for example? SAYERS: No, it’s not inherently exploitative or dangerous. The law–a report that came from the government stated that it continues to view prostitution as exploitative, and this was before this new law. And this was in 2007, before the constitutional challenge ever began. And nothing has changed. So just because people say it’s this way doesn’t mean that that is the reality, because the reality is, when you look at the evidence–John Ferguson, former RCMP superintendent, actually said that, you know, does human trafficking exist, and he says yes. Does it exist at the systemic level that is presented within the media or from people who want to abolish sex work? No. So it’s not as systemic as it presents. And even when you look at the numbers that the government presented, they didn’t even present any numbers. They just said victims of prostitution are many. But we don’t have any statistics to support this. So how are they saying that victims of prostitution are many when they don’t even have any statistics to back it up? And then, further to that, even when they say that the profits from traffickers, they don’t even add up, they say that it’s $260,000 per year per victim that a trafficker makes. And they based that on the assumption that it’s $900 per day from one victim alone. And the problem with that is that that assumes that those victims are seen at least–either three to nine men per day every single day of the year, which is practically impossible to do. DESVARIEUX: Okay. So then how would you address the issue of people who might be being forced to go into sex work because of economic desperation, for example? What should the Canadian parliament be considering? SAYERS: Well, they should have consulted with actual sex workers and sex work organizations. There is over–there is thousands and thousands of pages of evidence that supported this constitutional challenge, and this evidence demonstrated that when you criminalize prostitution, that it does not protect the victims. And even the global alliance against trafficking in women, which is a global alliance, states that criminalizing prostitution does not protect trafficked women and girls. DESVARIEUX: Okay. Let’s talk about the roots of this legislation, because, obviously, you were saying that it doesn’t protect the rights of women and girls. But advocates say that at the end of the day it does. So the figures can sometimes, you know, depending on what side you’re talking to, they can kind of promote certain numbers over others. I want to speak to the origins, though, and the legislation that began in Nordic countries like Sweden back in the ’90s. And they put in place similar laws, and they’ve been able to sort of test the impact of their laws over the course of about a decade. And according to 2010 research from the Swedish government, they saw that prostitution was cut in half. And there’s been a considerable change in society’s opinion about buying sex. For example, in 1996, 45 percent of women and 20 percent of men supported criminalizing the buying of sex, but by 2008 the numbers went up to 79 percent of women and 60 percent of men were in favor of criminalizing prostitution. So some might look at those numbers, Naomi, and say that this new law is going to effect demand in some way, and that might be part of your concern with this new legislation. What would be your response to that? SAYERS: Well, when you actually look at the research that comes out of Sweden, it states that the fact that it says that there was a decrease in prostitution, that’s very misleading. They had no numbers to begin with to measure those, to compare those numbers initially. And then, with the trends in the industry is that women are tending to work indoors and using the internet, and that’s even–like, the outdoor sex trade, that represents a very small portion of the overall industry itself, especially within Canada. And when you look at the effects of the Swedish model in Sweden on Swedish sex workers, you see the exact opposite. They’re less likely to go to the police, and if they’re working indoors, they can be evicted from their home and from their workplace. And if they’re not affected, then the landlord can be charged. And further to that, there is also Jasmine, was a Swedish sex worker who was murdered under the Swedish model, because the Swedish model assumes that prostitution is inherently exploitative and harmful. And when prostitutes engage in selling sex, they’re putting harm directly in their way. And that did nothing to protect her, because she was murdered by her abusive husband and her children were taken away. DESVARIEUX: Okay. So what’s next step for you guys? How are you going to fight this? SAYERS: Well, we have to–the challenging thing is how these initial–the constitutional challenge came to be was a gathering of evidence. And the evidence was dead sex workers. So literally other sex worker activists have been saying, we have to wait for a body count. And how sad is that? DESVARIEUX: Okay, that is quite sad. And we’ll certainly keep track of this story. Naomi Sayers, thanks so much for joining us. SAYERS: Thank you. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Naomi Sayers is a sex work activist, indigenous feminist and common law student at the University of Ottawa. She is also the creator of kwe (pronounced q-way) and founder of the South Western Ontario Sex Workers.