Dangerous conflations: anti-trafficking in Canada

“Over the last decade, the Canadian government has increasingly focused its attention on the fight to end “human trafficking,” a category that regularly conflates a number of phenomena, such as child sexual abuse, child sex slavery, deceptive or fraudulent hiring practices of migrant workers, abusive working conditions faced by adult sex workers, consensual exchanges of sexual services for money, both unwilling and willing sex migration, debt bondage, threats, coercion, theft or destruction of documents, rape, and kidnapping.”

Robyn Maynard, Fighting wrongs with wrongs? How Canadian Anti-Trafficking Crusades Have Failed Sex Workers, Migrants, and Indigenous Communities

Canadian government, organizations, and media’s frequent conflation of human trafficking with a variety of other experiences, as described by Robyn Maynard above, result in anti-trafficking policies that are overwhelmingly anti-sex work, and often target Indigenous, Black, trans, and migrant communities. Below, we talk about the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act as an example of the harm that we cause when we do not listen to those most impacted by violence and those most impacted by the policy we are creating.

Example 1: an
anti-trafficking law that is
anti-sex work

The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (or the PCEPA) defines sex work as sexual exploitation, and all sex workers are considered victims. The PCEPA attempts to end the Canadian sex industry by criminalizing sex work and sex workers’ personal safety practices. For instance, the PCEPA criminalizes public vetting of clients and negotiation of services. Workers are forced to do this privately, therefore placing their safety as well as their physical, emotional, mental, and financial well-being at risk. When it is enforced, the PCEPA is also primarily used to prosecute marginalized women (especially Black, Indigenous, and trans women) in the sex industry.

It is essential to note that: the Supreme Court of Canada previously rejected a near-identical law to the PCEPA because the Court found it unconstitutional and that it put street-based sex workers lives at risk. The dangers of the PCEPA are widely known and ignored by the Canadian government.

To strengthen anti-sex work perspectives, sex work will also be conflated with systemic oppression and structural violence. Below, Treena Orchard talks about what happens when we consider women and girls to be “at-risk” of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation:

“Th[e] conflation between gender inequity and trafficking ignores the fact that these risks stem from living in a society that demeans and eroticizes women and girls.”

Treena Orchard, Pretty Vacant

Instead of addressing the gender inequity that creates risk, anti-trafficking policies impose “familial, social, and political surveillance [on women and girls] under the auspices of protecting them from being trafficked,” (Orchard continued).

This means that, even if a person is at a heightened risk of exploitation, their needs and the root causes of their increased exposure to exploitation cannot be addressed. Instead, just as is enforced under the PCEPA, those most marginalized are exposed to increased surveillance, criminalization, and stigmatization.

The relationship between systemic oppression, marginalization, and factors that impact exposure to exploitation will be addressed further in Module 3.

Learn about the Nordic Model and it’s impacts below.

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