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Bawdy crimes 

By redefining sex work as organized crime, the Conservatives are endangering workers.

“I'm an organized criminal,” mutters Valerie Scott in utter disbelief. Scott, a sex worker and executive director of the Toronto-based activist group Sex Professionals of Canada, doesn't see herself as your typical organized criminal. But new amendments to the Canadian Criminal Code are lumping sex workers in the same category as violent criminals.

The Conservative government announced changes to the laws August 4. Keeping a “common bawdy house” is now considered a serious offence, and sex workers sharing a work space or working from home can be punished with up to five years in prison. Police are provided with the same tools for dealing with sex workers as they use with organized criminals, such as wiretaps and the power to seize assets.

“We treat sex workers as disposable and these laws are going to put them in more danger,” says Rene Ross, executive director of Stepping Stone, a Halifax-based organization offering supportive programs for sex workers.

Greg Mason of Halifax Regional Police's Vice Unit is aware that there are downsides to the legislation. “If we make arrests and shut down a common bawdy house, the reality is that it may displace sex trade workers,” explains Mason. “We encourage them to seek out organizations that support them and can help them transition from the sex trade.”

But Ross says that the new legislation will actually make it tougher for sex workers to transition out of the sex trade, because those workers will now have criminal records, which in turn can make sex workers appear less hireable to employers.

Scott calls the legislation a “de facto death sentence,” as it pushes sex workers onto the streets alone. The act of selling sex in itself is not illegal in itself in Canada, but Canadian law increasingly criminalizalizes the activities surrounding sex work. This forces sex work underground, making it a risky business. Sex work has one of the highest fatality rates of any profession; Canadian police confirmed the murders of 15 sex workers as a result of their profession in 2007 alone, according to Statistics Canada.

“The federal government wants us alone and vulnerable. They're serving us up to sexual predators like Robert Pickton on a silver platter,” says Scott bluntly. "We like to work together for security,” she explains. Indoor sex workers often work in groups, a strategy they are less likely to employ outdoors for fear of arrest. Academic research supports that strategy---more than two-thirds of indoor sex workers who participated in a 2007 Simon Fraser University study said they'd never experienced violent behaviour on the job.

Mason encourages sex workers to “report violence so that it can be investigated by police and to seek support from local organizations such as Stepping Stone.” But Ross worries the new legislation will make sex workers less likely to report being assaulted and raped by clients because the sex workers fear harsher penalties themselves.

Michael Goodyear, a women's health expert and professor with Dalhousie's Department of Medicine, says the new legislation is based on prohibitionist morality, not solid research. “Experts in Canada and all over the world are calling for a regulated indoor market in sex work to reduce violence and stigma on the streets,” explains Goodyear. “This move can only set the clock back years and further endanger sex workers.”

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