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Sex-worker advocates fear bill would increase risks to safety

A sex worker activist attends a demonstration with prostitutes against a proposal to scrap sanctions on soliciting and instead punish prostitutes' customers with fines in Paris November 29, 2013. French lawmakers will start debating today a bill aimed at stemming prostitution with steep fines to clients - a radical switch from the country's traditionally tolerant stance that will give it some of the toughest legislation in Europe. Prostitution is not illegal in France, which has an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 sex workers according to a 2012 report by the Scelles Foundation, but there are laws against pimping, human trafficking and soliciting sex in public. REUTERS/Charles Platiau (FRANCE - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY)

CHARLES PLATIAU/Reuters

Canada's proposed new prostitution law will make sex work more dangerous, critics warn, by banning certain advertising, exposing sex workers to criminal charges and driving the sex trade further underground.

Bill C-36, tabled after the Supreme Court struck down Canada's existing laws in part because they threatened the safety of sex workers, is designed to instead target clients by criminalizing the purchase of sex.

Many sex-worker advocates, however, have told the committee considering the bill this week that the bill nonetheless imperils sex workers. In particular, it sets criminal penalties for certain sex advertisements and limits where they can discuss a deal with a client and who they can work with.

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"I can tell you with no uncertainty whatsoever that Bill C-36 will cause great harm to sex-workers across Canada," said Kerry Porth, a former sex worker who is the chair of the board of Vancouver's Pivot Legal Society.

Some critics warn the bill's restrictions, in particular those on advertising and third-party involvement, would harm sex workers' ability to screen clients and could rule out online resources – such as a "bad date" list of risky clients. Further, the bill makes it a crime for a sex worker to discuss a transaction at or near any place where minors "can reasonably be expected to be present."

Pivot lawyer Elin Sigurdson warned the provisions effectively ban indoor sex work, which many advocates consider safer.

Emily Symons, who chairs an Ottawa-area sex worker group known as POWER, also said the changes will harm sex workers. Criminalizing the buying of sex decreases the pool of clients and forces sex workers to search elsewhere, exposing themselves to both risk from new clients and arrest or criminal charges, Ms. Symons said.

Ms. Symons also said advertising restrictions could harm sex workers who currently state explicitly in ads which sex acts they will not perform because a client may get upset if an act is not offered, but the government has said prostitutes themselves are exempt from advertising limits.

Émilie Laliberté, a sex worker and spokesperson for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, said the bill would shut down the websites she advertised on. Conservative MP Bob Dechert told her any website she pays for "on commercial terms" would still be permitted so long as she wasn't being exploited. "You consider me an exploited person anyways," Ms. Laliberté replied.

Kim Pate, the executive director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, urged MPs to drop any part of the bill that criminalizes sex workers, but doesn't think the bill adds to their risk. "I can't see how it could be any more dangerous than it already is for women," Ms. Pate said.

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Christine Bruckert, a University of Ottawa criminologist who studies prostitution, said the proposed law will limit sex workers' ability to screen clients, work together and will "have a very significant harmful impact on sex workers."

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