These FAQs correspond with LEAF’s Sex Work Advocacy Position. Read the full position paper for more details.
What led LEAF to take a position on sex work?
Historically, LEAF has not had a position on sex work and has abstained from intervening in litigation or making law reform submissions on sex work. Not having a position has prevented LEAF from engaging in meaningful action or dialogue with the sex work community.
Developing this position on sex work aligns with LEAF’s strategic priorities of acting “with respect for intersectional and multi-sector knowledge” and “foster[ing] collaborative, respectful relationships with new and existing partners”, which is necessary to ensure our feminism remains inclusive and representative.
What are the current sex work laws in Canada?
Most of Canada’s current sex work laws were enacted in 2014 when Parliament passed the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA). The objective of the legislation is to end demand for the purchase of sexual services and effectively eliminate sex work in Canada.
PCEPA criminalizes various aspects of sex work, including the purchase of sexual services, communicating for the purpose of sex work in public places (such as schools or daycare centres), and third-party involvement such as materially benefitting from someone doing sex work.
For more details on the specific criminal offences created by PCEPA, please see our position paper.
Why is LEAF concerned about Canada’s sex work laws?
LEAF is concerned about the impact of criminalization on sex workers, many of whom are gendered and racialized, and face other intersecting systemic barriers such as
; transphobia, ableism, and poverty.
Criminalizing any aspect of sex work increases social stigma against sex workers and enables the interference, surveillance, and targeting of sex workers by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Evidence shows that this targeting can lead to loss of housing, custody, and income supports for sex workers. The harms resulting from law enforcement’s interventions are especially pronounced for Black, Indigenous, and racialized sex workers.
LEAF is also concerned about the conflation of sex work with trafficking in the current sex work laws. This conflation is widely criticized by experts as being harmful to both sex workers and trafficking victims/survivors.
What is LEAF’s position on sex work?
LEAF calls for full decriminalization of sex work done by adults. This is an important first step to ensure that sex workers in Canada can live freely and exercise their agency, including exercising their right to autonomy, dignity, and equality.
Other recommendations set out in our position paper include reforms that address additional health, social, and legal rights of sex workers.
What does decriminalization of sex work entail? Why does LEAF support it?
LEAF calls for the repeal of sex work-specific provisions in the Criminal Code applicable to sex work done by adults. It does not, however, call for repealing laws that criminalize human trafficking, exploitation of or violence against sex workers.
Laws that criminalize buying sex and the organization of sex work often harm sex workers by depriving them of income, alienating them from networks of support, forcing sex workers to work in isolation, and exposing them to greater risks in attempts to avoid police detection. Like many other industries, the sex industry is not devoid of sexism and/or exploitation; however, criminalizing the industry does not address these issues. Rather, it perpetuates the conditions in which exploitation and violence can occur, while exacerbating the challenges sex workers face in addressing these issues in their work.
Fully decriminalizing sex work is an important first step for sex workers to exercise their rights – including their rights to autonomy, dignity, and equality. It also recognizes sex workers’ agency, facilitates the conditions in which they are better able to establish consent, and allows for the implementation of labour protections. Decriminalization can also lead to increased options for reporting of real violence and harm that sex workers experience.
How is decriminalizing sex work consistent with LEAF’s intersectional advocacy?
This call to fully decriminalize sex work is consistent with LEAF’s mandate to advance substantive gender equality, because it calls on the federal government to remove punitive laws that exacerbate the discriminatory treatment of sex workers, many of whom are women facing intersecting grounds of discrimination under the law.
LEAF is concerned about the impact of criminalization on women, trans, and non-binary people – particularly, Black, Indigenous, and racialized women, trans, and non-binary people. Since Canada’s current sex work laws were enacted, evidence has demonstrated that they have increased targeted violence and harm for sex workers – particularly, for Black, Indigenous, and Asian sex workers. For sex workers who are undocumented, have precarious immigration status, or are permanent residents, criminalization also increases their risk of detention, deportation, and/or loss of status.
But shouldn’t sex work be abolished entirely? Isn’t it exploitative?
LEAF does not characterize sex work as inherently exploitative or void of all exploitation. Sex workers’ experiences in the sex industry are varied, depending on the type of sex work as well as the social location of the worker. We also recognize that sex work is only one of many industries in which the potential for exploitation and harm exists.
The stigma associated with sex work is deeply harmful to sex workers and often leads to the adoption of discriminatory practices or policies towards them. Many of the dangers or difficulties sex workers face are caused either by the stigma against them, or by the criminalization of the industry that forces them to take more risks and deprives them of labour rights, human rights, and health protections. Decriminalization is an important and necessary first step to realizing the full rights and agency of sex workers.
What about trafficking?
LEAF is deeply concerned about trafficking, which is characterized by a lack of consent, coercion and/or control, and/or conduct that could reasonably be expected to cause someone to believe their safety, or the safety of someone known to them, would be threatened if they failed to offer a sexual service.
However, it is important to note that trafficking and sex work are not synonymous. Conflating human trafficking, sexual exploitation, and sex work leads to the misuse of anti-trafficking laws, placing sex workers at increased risk of violence, isolation, and marginalization.
Decriminalizing sex work does not mean removing anti-trafficking measures in place. However, these laws and policies must not be misused. The misapplication of human trafficking provisions often leads to the profiling, detention, and deportation of im/migrant sex workers.
How does this position change LEAF’s work, going forward?
With the publication of this position, LEAF commits to further working with sex worker movements and organizations and adopting law reform recommendations and advocacy positions that are guided by and for sex workers, by evidence, and by human rights-based policy.