A group of Anglican clergy and laity have taken a stand against Bill C-36, the Conservative government’s proposed legislation whose Scandinavian model shifts the main criminal burden in prostitution from vendors to buyers.
Bill C-36 proposes to decriminalize the selling of sexual services but not the buying of them.
Fearing the bill will further marginalize and endanger workers by driving sex-for-hire transactions underground, some 35 Anglicans led by Victoria’s Rev. Bruce Bryant-Scott recently sent an open letter to the hearings held by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights of the House of Commons. “We were too late for the panel discussions, but the letter has been noted as part of the public record,” said Bryant-Scott, rector of St. Matthias Anglican Church, diocese of British Columbia.
In the lingering shadow of Robert Pickton’s mass murders of B.C. sex workers, the signatories believe the bill will do nothing to prevent the recurrence of such a large-scale tragedy. “As a Christian, my fundamental ethic is care and concern for other persons, who are all created in the image of God,” said Bryant-Scott. “So even if I don’t approve of the commodification of sex, that does not mean that I would set up the Criminal Code to condemn workers to a life of violence and potential death.”
According to Bryant-Scott, “Creating a context that criminalizes the buyer only drives the transactions further underground. In the long run, it will create greater problems for those in the sex trade.” While he would prefer to see economic enhancement ease the financial pressures that turn many individuals toward the industry, “as a Christian, I cannot stand by indifferent to what happens to them now.” He proposes that rather than laying blame, Christians engage with sex workers, following the example of Jesus in Luke 7:36-50, where he accepts the hospitality and anointing of the sinful woman (prostitute).
The signatories also object to the bill as one more unilateral proposal from a government that refuses to hear. “The government is not listening to what people in the industry say or what their advocacy groups say,” said the Rev. David Opheim, protest-director-incumbent at All Saints’ Anglican Church in downtown Toronto, whose Friday drop-in program is frequented by many involved in the sex trade. “People in the industry say the bill will do nothing to protect them and feel it’s not enforceable,” he said. Another criticism of the bill is that it wrongly conflates prostitution with sex trafficking.
Sister Elizabeth Ann Eckert, reverend mother of Toronto’s Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine, signed the letter because she took issue with its one-sided, colonial-style imposition of values on major stakeholders by an uninvolved group. “Where are the conversations with the people engaged in the sex trade?” she said. “I’m coming from the perspective of having those involved in the work guiding the legislation. Let’s get the professionals talking about what it would take to make it safer for them to work.”
The original impetus for the open letter came from Marion Little, former executive director of PEERS, a Victoria advocacy group for sex workers. “I was concerned that, based on feedback from sex worker focus groups, the bill’s Nordic model did not reduce violence against sex workers in Vancouver,” she said. That failure was documented in a June article in the British Medical Journal, and in other data the model also fails to reduce the influx of individuals into sex work or have any significant impact on human sex trafficking and exploitation.
The current Canadian debate presents only two choices regarding prostitution: criminalization or legalization as is the case in Nevada, Germany and The Netherlands. “But there’s a third choice: decriminalization,” said Little. This makes it an activity between consenting adults, and subjects it to protective legislation such as anti-trafficking, child-protection, anti-assault and harassment laws and employment standards. “These are not currently being applied to sex workers ” Little said. Introduced in New Zealand in 2003, decriminalization has stabilized the sex worker population and made for a safer relationship with the police.
For Little, the bill’s greatest danger is the potential risk to broader human rights. “This is legislation that erodes the constitutional rights of every Canadian,” she said. “If we permit legislation that violates the rights of one marginalized group…then it’s a short trip to violating the rights of other citizens. Who’s next—the homeless, addicts, immigrants, migrant workers?”
It’s unclear what immediate impact the letter will have on the bill. But for priests Bryant-Scott and Opheim, it should serve Anglicans as a wake-up call to begin a serious discussion of the role of sex and sex work in Christian theology, the church and society.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include an additional comment from Sister Elizabeth Ann Eckert, reverend mother of Toronto’s Convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine.