Friday, December 20, 2013

An historic day for sex workers, but a storm's building

And so it comes to this: Girding my loins for a battle to stop sex work from being declared illegal in Canada. Good grief, my idealistic 30-year-old self would have been gob-smacked to hear she'd grown into a person holding the completely opposite view on prostitution.
     It's a long story on how I got from there to here, and you can find more details here if you're curious. But the quick version is that for the last 17 years I've had the pleasure of getting to know many, many people who work in the business. Over time, I learned that my idealistic vision of a world where nobody would ever have to sell access to their bodies was in fact causing violence and suffering against the very people I wanted to help.
     For people who share my opinion that the only way to end the violence is to ditch the country's harmful laws around adult, consensual sex work, today is a joyous day. The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the laws around keeping a common bawdy-house, living off the avails of prostitution (pimping), and communicating in public with clients. (CBC news story here.) Those laws have created huge risks for sex workers because they prohibit indoor workplaces and deny workers the protection of the police or the courts.
     Whatever your views of sex work, know this: The laws we had weren't serving anyone. They increased the danger many times over for sex workers, but at the same time did nothing to prevent the visible problems of outdoor sex work that drive communities mad. Nor did they do anything to stop people from entering the sex trade, or curb the number of men buying it.
     And even in communities where nobody was doing anything to enforce the laws against prostitution, those laws were still causing harm. They stigmatize and shame sex workers. They criminalize a sex worker's earnings even though the work is actually legal (it's just the marketing, location and earnings that have been illegal to this point). They leave sex workers to live in deathly fear that someone will find out what they do for a living, or used to do, because the shame is that deep and they know all too well that they could lose their house, their job, their family or their spouse if outed.
     We're going to hear a lot over the next few days about why this court decision is the worst thing ever. For the sake of tens of thousands of consenting adult sex workers in Canada, please look for a wide variety of sources when informing yourself around this issue. Here's a great piece from April by Joyce Arthur to get you started.
    The removal of these laws has not "ripped the lid" off prostitution or opened the way to the exploitation of children and vulnerable women. We will not see a huge increase in prostitution, because it already exists in every village, town and city in Canada and its growth is driven by market demand, not legality. Trafficking and child sexual exploitation rightly remain illegal. All that has happened is that we have thrown out three poorly considered and largely ignored laws that were inadvertently doing great harm to vulnerable women in particular.
    So for those who believe in a safer world for everyone, this is a momentous day. But as I mentioned earlier, it's also a day for loin-girding against the next imminent threat on the horizon, that being indications that the Conservative government wants to declare the sale of sex illegal. At the party convention in early November, the party supported a motion to criminalize the sale of sex - which would be a first in Canada - and declares "that human beings are not objects to be enslaved, bought or sold."
     You can't argue with the passion of the motion. But the reality of it would be disastrous. No country in the history of the world has ever eradicated sex work through criminalization. For better or worse, the human drive for pleasure has created a vigorous market for sex work. All that legal sanctions do is force the industry into the shadows. And as we know so well in B.C., bad things happen in dark places.
    Were the government to declare the sale of sex illegal, there would be no legal ground to stand on when fighting for the right to safer working conditions. Such a change simply can't be allowed, or all the halting gains for sex workers will be lost in an instant and we'll be back to working conditions that practically invite predators to target vulnerable women right under our moral noses.
     So those of us who believe in safer work places for sex workers are now going to have to fight against the criminalization of sex work, which will almost certainly be the Conservative government's response to this court ruling. We are not done yet.
    Still, what a development! I fear the loss of support from those who are almost there on the issue of safer work places, but won't be able to stomach a fight to stop sex work from being declared criminal. Can we agree that human beings are not objects to be enslaved, bought or sold, but that paid sex between consenting adults is something else entirely?
    This will certainly be a fight that will push everyone into their corners. Those of us who feel strongly about this issue will have to be the boldest, most confident versions of ourselves in the midst of what will undoubtedly be a no-holds-barred attack by some feminist movements and women's groups that will denounce us as apologists for the men who buy sex and victimizers of women.
    But surely we've got today to celebrate. Today is for the winners. Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, Valerie Scott - I am clapping loudly, and it's all for you, the advocacy groups and other sex workers who stood beside you, and the lawyers who helped make your compelling case. It's never easy to be brave, but your courage has changed history.


Sharon said...

Great news. From my standpoint, sex workers are providing a service, one that has existed since the beginning of time, apparently. Ours is not to reason why, ours is to support each and every human being who enters our lives, with our words and deeds. I am so pleased with this decision, I just wish it didn't give the naysayers another pulpit to preach from. It's a job, pure and simple, and should be safe and fairly paid.

Ian Lidster said...

Excellent insights Jody from a person who can speak with so much authority on the matter due to your advocacy work. As I indicated on my blog, it took me back to the says of the Brothel Project. But your caveat about the Tories must be heeded. They'll try to stop this; they have too much Bible Belt support to not stand in the way of this happening. I mean, they have their anti-abortion constituents who are always grumbling in the wings and who want to return us to a Norman Rockwell fantasy world. Makes me want to puke, it does. I leave you with the question that if prostitution were outlawed, what would happen with escort agencies that are currently legal?

Anonymous said...

As you note, the political aspects of this decision will be the gift that keeps on giving to the Conservatives.

1) They get to rant against unelected and unaccountable judges (even though Harper appointed the majority of judges, and McLachlin was originally appointed by Mulroney)
2) They get to paint themselves using feminist language and as protectors of womens rights.
3) They get to absolutely vilify any NDP/Liberal politician who dares criticize the Conservatives efforts to criminalize sex work.

When it comes time to vote, you can be damn sure that the Conservatives will have painted anyone supporting the NDP/Liberals as drug-using sexual deviants.

One heck of a nasty, personal campaign is to come.

Jody Paterson said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I really do think advocates can take maybe a week off to celebrate the decision, but then it's on to what will almost certainly be a really ugly campaign to stop criminalization. Ian, my personal feeling is that the market for sexual services will not change in Canada regardless of the legal status around commercial sex. I don't think the market will increase because of decriminalization, because the people who buy sex buy it regardless. I also don't think the market will decrease if it's criminalized, for the same reason! The people who are primarily affected by criminalization are sex workers, who will be shut out entirely from standard civil-society remedies (police, courts) if the work they do becomes criminal. Meanwhile, the goals of the broader community - to not have people victimized, to not have the "nuisance" of street prostitution in their neighbourhoods, to not have children being sexually exploited - will not be achieved either, because criminalization will not change any of those things. In terms of the brothels that are legal as a result of the judgment, I guess what would happen under a criminalized environment would be a lot of police raids. That happened in the 1970s in BC as well when we went through a misguided time of cracking down on indoor sex venues, and the result was a huge influx of sex workers into the streets, and a dramatic rise in violence against sex workers as a result.

e.a.f. said...

yes, the Cons will want to criminalise sex trade worker and as said it will make a great political football. Their position of people are not to be bought and sold, etc. is all well and good, but lets look at it. have we found anyone who went into the job because of the great pay, pension plan, benefits, etc. No. Sex trade workers go into the business because they can't find any other work to support themselves and their children.

Now the Conservatives may like to take the position they don't think people ought to be "bought and sold" but they don't appear to have a problem of letting the die from lack of food, medical care, adequate housing, etc. The Cons never did seem to hve a problem with all the women murdered by Pickton. For that matter they don't appear to have any problem with any sex trade workers being murdered, just not bought and sold.

prostitution takes many forms. the one the Cons rail against is the one where sex is bought and sold. Well get a grip. It isn't going to change. Its the oldest profession on earth. Until society deals with the underlying issues of going into the sex trade, society needs to ensure the people who are sex trade workers are protected from violence and exploitation.

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