In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three key prostitution laws under the Criminal Code and gave Parliament one year to come up with new legislation, if it chooses to do so. The Government of Canada is currently engaging Canadians in a consultation related to rewriting the laws. The following is a submission from the YWCA of Calgary:

As an organization committed to serving and advocating for women in our community who are vulnerable, the YWCA of Calgary believes the necessary review of the Criminal Code with regards to prostitution-related offences offers an opportunity to further protect women at risk.

Like other YWCAs across the country, the YWCA of Calgary provides a variety of emergency shelter and housing services for women experiencing family violence, homelessness, isolation and deep poverty. In 2013, 1,224 women and 328 children spent at least one night under a YWCA of Calgary roof.

Many of the women we support through shelter and counselling programs have exchanged sex for money, shelter or the basic means of survival. We hear daily about the deep trauma – both physical and emotional – that the sex trade takes on women. Many had their first experiences with prostitution at 12 or 13-years-of-age and, with limited options before them, continue as adults.

In recent years with the rise of smart phones and the gentrification of many central neighbourhoods, the sex trade in Calgary has shifted. Whereas in the past social workers, law enforcement and so-called clients could find workers at street level, women are now more likely to work inside. As the sex trade becomes less visible to Canadians, it also becomes a decidedly more dangerous and isolated circumstance which does not offer the more obvious opportunities for intervention.

As you examine the legislation, we ask you to frame the question from the perspective of economic and social opportunities before considering the criminal dimensions.

The women we see at the YWCA who are engaged in the sex trade are often highly barriered. They are more likely to be Aboriginal or racialized and, in addition to living in poverty, many are also experiencing addictions, sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, mental health issues, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and the fallout of a childhood rife with abuse.

The economic and social conditions which enable these vulnerabilities are not specific to individual women. The continued lack of safe, appropriate and affordable housing, insufficient basic income levels and a lack of relationship, educational and skills supports limit their options.

A meaningful focus by governments and nonprofits, including the YWCA, on the provision of these basic needs and on the empowerment of women and girls is essential in creating the conditions which will offer natural protections and divert vulnerable individuals from entering the sex trade.

No woman should face prostitution as a survival strategy. Additionally, we must offer safety and options for women who wish to exit prostitution to connect, heal and contribute to our communities.

In answer to the consultation question specifically, we do not believe that the selling of sexual services by an adult should be a criminal offence. Criminalizing women who have limited means to support themselves at the present time only further limits their future opportunities for employment and mobility.

At the same time, we believe those who prey upon vulnerable persons – including children and women – by selling them, indenturing them through addiction, threats and other means or abusing power should be prosecuted under the Criminal Code.