On Dec. 20 of that year, the top court unanimously ruled that criminal laws prohibiting living off the avails of sex work pushed Terri-Jean Bedford and other sex workers into dangerous underground situations in order to do their jobs, and violated their constitutional rights to security of the person.
“The Bedford decision that the Supreme Court made was a unanimous victory for sex workers,” Porth said. “They were recognized as human beings.”
Porth, who exited sex work on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2004 and has since become a leading activist for sex worker rights, was among those who saw the decision as the gamechanger that would finally afford a marginalized class of workers the same protections as all other working people, including occupational health and safety standards, the ability to collectivize, and maybe, eventually, pensions and sick pay.
Looking back now, her perspective has changed. Porth is dismayed that the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), passed in 2014 by the Harper government in response to the Bedford decision, seems to do anything but what its name promises.
The PCEPA called for the adoption what’s known as the “Nordic model,” which decriminalizes activities performed by sex workers and places the criminal burden on the demand side and on third parties, so that targeting “pimps” and “johns” are targeted by law enforcement. The upshot that it’s legal to sell sex in Canada, but illegal to pay for it or help someone else sell it.
The approach had the support of some feminist groups that argued sex work is inherently exploitative and that human trafficking is an inherent risk in the industry.
New research based on a Vancouver-based survey of sex workers shows that, far from protecting them, the PCEPA has had no impact on the working conditions for the vast majority. And for more than a quarter of the respondents, the law has made it more difficult than ever to access occupational health and safety measures — the same limitation that caused previous prostitution laws to be struck down in the first place.
Sex workers reported that’s because the same forces that pushed them to operate in “underground” and dangerous circumstances prior to 2014 are still present in their work. It’s just that instead of sex workers themselves fearing arrest, it’s the clients and support staff who may be targeted, creating a whole host of new pressures on workers.
I never felt more satisfied or optimistic than when I rode the river in my youth.