The Economist has published a lengthy and informative “briefing” on the ways in which the internet is changing prostitution ― often, although not always, for the benefit of sex workers. As it explains, the effects of new technologies on what is usually said to be the oldest profession are far-reaching, and mostly positive ― insofar as they make sex work safer than it used to be. If the federal government had been concerned with protecting sex workers, and if Parliament had truly “ha[d] grave concerns about … the risks of violence posed to those who engage in” prostitution, as it affected to be in the preamble of the so-called Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, S.C. 2014 c. 25, better known as Bill C-36, they would have considered the internet’s potential for benefiting sex workers.
But as the government’s and Parliament’s chief concern was apparently to make prostitution vanish by a sleight of criminal law’s heavy hand, its middle finger raised at the Supreme Court, they instead sought to drive sex workers off the internet. The new section 286.4 of the Criminal Code, created by C-36, criminalizes “[e]veryone who knowingly advertises an offer to provide sexual services for consideration,” although section 286.5 exempts those advertising “their own sexual services.” In other words, if a sex worker has her own website, that’s tolerated ― but if she uses some other service, or at least one geared specifically to sex workers and their potential customers, the provider of that service is acting illegally.
Meanwhile, according to the Economist, in the market for sex, as in so many others,
specialist websites and apps are allowing information to flow between buyer and seller, making it easier to strike mutually satisfactory deals. The sex trade is becoming easier to enter and safer to work in: prostitutes can warn each other about violent clients, and do background and health checks before taking a booking. Personal web pages allow them to advertise and arrange meetings online; their clients’ feedback on review sites helps others to proceed with confidence.
Above all, the ability to advertise, screen potential clients, and pre-arrange meetings online means that sex workers need not look for clients in the most dangerous environment for doing so ― on the street. Besides, “the internet is making it easier to work flexible hours and to forgo a middleman,” and indeed “it is independent sex workers for whom the internet makes the biggest difference.”
The internet is also making sex work safer. Yet the work of websites that “let [sex workers] vouch for clients they have seen, improving other women’s risk assessments,” or “where customers can pay for a background check to present to sex workers” is probably criminalized under the new section 286.2(1) added to the Criminal Code by C-36, which applies to “[e]veryone who receives a financial or other material benefit, knowing that it is obtained by or derived directly or indirectly from the commission of an offence under subsection 286.1(1)” ― the “obtaining sexual services for consideration” offence. Forums where sex workers can provide each other with tips and support can be shut down if they are associated with or part of websites that advertise “sexual services.”
As the Economist points out, the added safety (both from violent clients and law enforcement), convenience, and discretion can attract more people into sex work. So trying to eliminate the online marketplace for sex makes sense if one’s aim is, as I put it here, “to drive people out of sex work by making it desperately miserable” ― but that’s a hypocritical approach, and not what C-36 purports to do.
In any case, criminalization complicates the work of websites that help sex workers and their clients, but does not stop it. They are active in the United States, despite prostitution being criminalized in almost every State ― though they pretend that their contents are fictional. They base their activities in more prostitution-friendly jurisdictions. A professor interviewed by the Economist points out that a ban on advertising sexual services in Ireland “has achieved almost nothing.” There seems to be little reason to believe that the ban in C-36, which has a large exemption for sex workers advertising themselves, would fare differently.
The Economist concludes that “[t]he internet has disrupted many industries. The oldest one is no exception.” Yet the government and Parliament have been oblivious to this trend, as they have been oblivious to most of the realities of sex work. One must hope that courts, when they hear the inevitable challenge to the constitutionality of C-36, will take note.