Decriminalize sex work

A red umbrella lying in sand

MoveUP and the campaign to decriminalize sex work

In 2019, MoveUP became the first known union in Canada to publicly declare its support for the decriminalization of sex work. It is important for organizations like ours to step up to advocate for all workers.

Through letter writing campaigns and petitions, MoveUP has called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberal government to keep their promise to repeal the Harper-era sex worker laws – specifically Bill C-36 – which the Liberals themselves called “a bill that puts people at risk.”

MoveUP has also called on Members of Parliament to apply pressure and hold the federal government to their promise. We have also asked for MLAs and provincial governments to help ensure our municipalities address the unsafe conditions that sex workers face, and to ensure they are treated with respect and dignity.


Why decriminalize?

Denying the existence of consensual adult sex work erases sex workers’ autonomy. It opens up sex workers to harm, violence, and over-policing while ignoring the systemic barriers and unsafe labour practices that sex workers face. Sex work is extremely stigmatized in Canada and is often conflated with human and labour trafficking. Instead of stigmatizing, imagine if we could direct that energy towards improving working conditions for all sex workers.

Sex work is work. Sex workers want rights, not rescue.

Decriminalization is an attempt at reducing police stereotyping and harassment based on behaviours. Unfortunately, Legalization does not end this type of police harassment; it bolsters it. Instead of arresting for sex work, police would use Legalization to arrest for lack of licenses and other paperwork. By doing so, it keeps the same carceral barriers in sex workers’ lives which, in turn, will have ripple effects on their housing or child custody due to having criminal records.

Decriminalization stokes several collective fears. Opponents of decriminalization assume that this path encourages increased participation and increase labour trafficking within the sex industry. But those fears are unfounded. Decriminalization will make it easier for workers to organize and advocate for better and safer working conditions. Having sex work take place above ground, and not in the shadows, makes it easier to identify and support victims of labour trafficking, and for workers to exit exploitative and violent situations.


What are advocates working on now?

In October 2022, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform submitted and gave evidence to the Charter Challenge on sex work specific criminal offences.

There were 11 applicants included in this challenge: Alessa Mason, Jane X, Monica Forrester, Valerie Scott, Lanna Moon Perrin, Danielle Cooley, Elene Lam, Ellie Ade Kur, Jenn Clamen, Sandra Wesley, and Nora Butler Burke.

Factums were presented by: Amnesty International Canada, British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), Black Legal Action Centre (BLAC), Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL), Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), EGALE and Enchante Network, Legal and Education Action Fund (LEAF), Migrant Workers Alliance for Change (MWAC), Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centre (OCRCC), and the Sexual Health Coalition (HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario, Coalition des organismes communautaires québécois de lutte contre le sida [COCQ-SIDA], and Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights).

This did not just happen overnight. Years were spent educating and advocating the government to uphold sex workers charter rights and to respect the Bedford decision, the 2013 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that determined Canada’s prostitution laws were unconstitutional, and to review and reform the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA).

Despite the Liberals’ promise, and their requirement to do so after five years, the inaction from Parliament forced sex workers to challenge these laws once again and to have their human rights protected.

Decriminalization is one part of the struggle the recognition and actualization of sex workers’ rights. These include the right to autonomy and self-determination, security of the person, freedom of expression and association, equality and non-discrimination, safety, and dignity. Beyond the criminalization of sex work, laws and policies contribute and reinforce inequality, disadvantage and discrimination based on various biological, social, and cultural categories such as race, gender, class, ability, citizenship status, mobility, and physical and mental health status.

Unfortunately, in September 2023, Ontario Superior Court dismissed the case. However, the fight continues with plans to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Latest updates

MoveUP continues to support the charter challenge. In the meantime, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform is asking for support from people to sign the petition to stop Bill S-224.

Additional information

Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform: Our Constitutional Challenge to PCEPA

Pivot Legal Society: Evaluating Canada’s Sex Work Laws – The Case For Repeal

Pivot Legal Society: Federal government’s sex work law review doesn’t go far enough