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We condemn attacks on women at work, unless it’s sex work

Angela Campbell is an associate professor in the Faculty of Law, McGill University

In a fortnight marked by intense media focus on sexual assault and harassment in the workplace, another news item – also bearing deep-seated gender implications – has moved far more discretely through the Canadian public circuit. Bill C-36, the federal government's proposed new law to govern sex work, passed through Senate last week, and is now set to receive royal assent. This will be the final step in the legislative process before the bill becomes a new law.

This latest development in the trajectory of Bill C-36 occurred largely under the public radar. The story was obscured by scandals serving to illuminate how sex can be used to intimidate or harass women at work. This is true even when women hold jobs in prominent public places, like national media outlets, or Parliament Hill.

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Bill C-36, and the various steps in its progression, could have offered similar insights about sexual dignity and security at work. But that was a missed moment. The Supreme Court decision that led to the bill's inception told us that criminalizing sex work exposes sex workers to unsustainable threats and dangers. Prohibitions push those who take part in the sex trade to social and geographic margins, where preventing or seeking redress for violence and abuse is impossible. As such, the Court found these prohibitions to be unconstitutional.

The Conservatives subsequently introduced and moved Bill C-36 forward, ostensibly as a response to the Supreme Court's concerns about the security of sex workers. But as many sex workers have asserted publicly, even in parliamentary hearings, this proposed new law offers no promise for attenuating the risks they face in their work. Sex work generally remains criminalized through Bill C-36. In the result, the threats of sexual and physical violence to which sex workers have always been exposed will persist.

How, then, in the same week that Canadians were so publicly incensed about workplace harassment and abuse, could a new law that promises to sustain violence in a work context for a particular class of women move quietly through the Senate?

The answer seems to lie in the kind of women, and the kind of work, that galvanize public attention. Sexual harassment and assault in an office or boardroom are rightfully the objects of public scorn, distaste and calls for action. In contrast, social reactions to such conduct in other contexts, especially within sex work, are typically muted or inexistent. It begs the question: Do sexual dignity and security mean something different in a white collar setting than in a brothel, or on a street corner?

Contrary to abiding myths, violence – whether sexual or physical – is not an inherent or tolerated part of sex work. Consent to sex is as relevant within sex work as it is to any sexual encounter that is unassociated with an economic transaction. The law's job is to maximize security and opportunities for real consent in sex work. Continuing criminalization of sex work and associated activities, unfortunately, goes no distance in that respect.

An opportunity was missed last week when the Senate approved Bill C-36. This could have been a moment to reflect on the realties of sex work in light of the national conversation unfolding across Canada about intimidation and violence through sexual assault and harassment. That reflection would have allowed for Canadians to contemplate – and perhaps expand – their collective commitment to ensuring women's sexual dignity and security at work, regardless of type of work that they do.

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