Honouring those lost to violence

December 17th is the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers. It is a day to commemorate those lost to violence in our communities. It is a day to honor those whose lives have gone unrecognized and forgotten. It is a day to reflect on the harms of sex work criminalization and stigmatization and on why some people don’t seem to care about the violence in their midst.

Fifty years after the sexual revolution, why do we still criminalize consensual sexual activity between adults? Partly, it’s because (unlike other issues like abortion, intimate partner violence, and LGBTQ+ rights) feminists themselves cannot agree on what to do. Anti-sex work feminists want to eliminate sex work, so they advocate for the so-called Nordic legal model which criminalizes the buyer of sex and decriminalizes the seller – basically to keep men from buying and to help women get out of the trade. Pro-sex work feminists see sex work mainly as a labour issue and argue that it is stigma and criminalization that does the most harm to sex workers, not bad clients.

This debate has been going on since the sex wars of the 1980s and is not likely to end anytime soon. The debates really do seem irreconcilable. If you believe that sex work is a violation of women’s human rights and is essentially exploitation, then you will not want to reform a system you think is irredeemable. If, on the other hand, you think commercial sex can be empowering at best and at the very least a lucrative way to make money, you might not understand why anti-sex work feminists insist on calling you a “prostituted woman.”

It becomes a chicken or egg dilemma. Does the existence of sex work indicate women’s disempowerment and inequality, as prohibitionists claim? Or are sex workers the vanguard of the movement for the right to bodily autonomy, as sex workers claim? Will women achieve sexual equity with men only when sex work is abolished? Or will women achieve sexual equality only when the sexual double standard and good girl/bad girl binary are eliminated and women viewed by society as “whores” are destigmatized? These are difficult, ideological and polarized positions but until we as feminists can come together to reconcile our differences around sex work, actual sex working women will suffer the consequences.

A constitutional challenge, ending in 2013, struck down the three main laws that essentially made sex work illegal in Canada (laws against solicitation, keeping a brothel and pimping). The Supreme Court of Canada agreed in their decision that these laws were unconstitutional under Section 7 of the Constitution – security of the person – because making brothels illegal meant women couldn’t work in safety together, disallowing drivers and security meant women were unable to work in safety alone, and criminalizing solicitation meant the most marginalized women in street-based work were unable to make good decisions about potential clients when they were forced to decide quickly before being arrested. The decision of the Court was unanimous. Criminalizing sex work was unconstitutional. Sex workers in Canada rejoiced.

Unfortunately for sex workers, the Court gave the government of the day one year to come up with new laws and the then-Conservative government brought in a modified Nordic model where the selling of sex is decriminalized but the buying of sex is not. The government could have chosen to legalize sex work as it is in some small counties in Nevada and countries like Germany and the Netherlands or decriminalize sex work entirely as in the New Zealand legal system where sex work is regulated through labour and health rules. Intense lobbying by anti-prostitution feminist activists and conservative religious groups convinced the government that the best way to protect sex workers was to make it a crime to buy sex, re-creating the same problem they were trying to fix. Sex work in Canada remains essentially illegal and stigmatized, and therefore made more dangerous by law.

Research indicates that sex work must be decriminalized as a first step towards allowing women to have the same personal autonomy as men: the freedom to make sexual decisions for themselves, to obtain orgasm equality, and to insist on their own sexual pleasure. Criminalizing and stigmatizing sex work reinforces the sexual double standard between men and women and the good girl/bad girl dichotomy between women themselves. And these are the very binaries that are the pillars of exploitation that underlie the current scourge of slut-shaming and sexual violence on high school and university campuses.

The ongoing stigma against sex workers explains why the December 17th commemoration is still needed and why some people in our communities do not care about the violence in their midst. These callous attitudes need to be challenged at every turn, by calling out Western society’s hypocrisy about sex and showing how stigma and the marginalization of sex workers harms all women.