On December 20, 2013, the morning the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three aspects of the prostitution law, my phone started ringing off the hook. Three Radio Canada programs were asking for interviews. Luckily, I had recently given a talk to a francophone agency arguing (unsuccessfully) in favour of decriminalization and had a file full of information in French. Some interviews were wide ranging discussions—from the specifics of the decision (solicitation, “living off the avails” and keeping a bawdy house) to my opinion on what the new and improved law should look like.
These 2013 interviews had nothing in common with what I would have said 40 years earlier.
In 1968, I had clear (and rigid) views about both prostitution and pornography. I have written in this space about my evolution regarding the latter. Like pornography, for me prostitution was rooted in sexism and therefore exploitative. End of story.
As prostitutes’ rights groups began to form in the mid-70s, they changed the language of the discussion. The term “sex work” required us to consider prostitution as work. I eventually came to accept the term and all that it implied, but was still unable to accept the notion that some people chose to do this kind of work.
Part of my assignment for a while at a local public health agency was teaming up with a community centre to do the rounds of places where local street-level workers hung out. We discreetly distributed condoms and information, while on the lookout for the police. These tours did little to disabuse me of the notion that there was “choice” involved in the trade. Most of the women we encountered had personal stories of abuse and subsequent addiction to crack cocaine. We got to know some of the women, like Debbie.
Debbie was in her 40s but looked 60. One day, she came into our public health office to have our friendly clerk dye her long, gray hair. Because she had lost her “coke bottle” glasses after being beaten by a john, one of the nurses took her to get another pair. Her history of sexual abuse was no surprise to me. Over the years, Debbie had given up more than one child to Children’s Aid.
Every now and again, the women would all disappear from the neighbourhood after the police had done a sweep. They would always drift back and the merry-go-round of doing tricks, getting arrested and getting spit back out into the street would resume. It was not just a frustrating way to earn a living, it was a dangerous one.
The Canadian Medical Association lists premature death as the primary risk of prostitution; and street-level prostitution is the most dangerous way to work. Before the Supreme Court decision, solicitation was considered illegal. If you are always looking out for the police, there is no time to check out the john or have a friend take down the licence plate before stepping inside his car. Although we now know that not all the missing Aboriginal women in British Columbia did sex work, according to the RCMP, more than 400 Aboriginal women either disappeared or were killed.
Other risks associated with street-level work are physical and sexual assault and STI infection. Moreover, there is little access to non-judgmental health, police or judiciary services.
The notion of harm reduction, which first emerged in 1990, was another stepping stone in my understanding of why the law and our attitudes to sex work had to change. Harm reduction regarding substance use (or risk reduction in the case of sexual activity) works by reducing the negative consequences of what is usually a dangerous activity.
One day I was preparing a young woman for an HIV test at the sexual health clinic where I worked. When I asked about the number of partners she had, she had to break it down by the month. She disclosed that she was exchanging sex for crack. When I asked whether she used condoms, she told me that johns would pay her double not to.
Similarly, teenagers fleeing abuse and exchanging sexual services for shelter; young, gay men who sell sex to survive after being forced to leave home; or trans women who need to buy their hormone treatments are all at risk.
My attitude towards the relationship between sex work, choice and the law changed dramatically a few years ago.
I came across a link in a sex columnist’s article on prostitution which clearly outlined the three possible options for a country’s legislation on prostitution: abolition, legalization or decriminalization. At that point I turned a philosophical corner and entered the decriminalization camp.
Abolition was what I had naively and fervently believed in before actually meeting and talking with sex workers. But in order to abolish prostitution, we would have to eliminate sexism leading to economic inequities, sexual abuse and addiction.
Legalization means using criminal laws to regulate and control the conditions under which sex work would function. This is the Reno, Nevada and “red light district” solution.
Decriminalization acts like the decriminalization of abortion. It creates a private arrangement between consenting adults. People could exchange sexual services for money under conditions that they freely negotiated. People would be able to work collectively, hire security, have access to health care and pay taxes, no matter where they worked or with whom.
Counter arguments have centered around trafficking and the potential for organized crime to take over sex work. They also cite fears about exploiting children and those under 18 years old. Papers have been written; laws have been passed. Yet, implementing those laws is the issue.
What have other countries decided? The Nordic model is rejected by many sex workers’ organizations and their allies like the HIV/AIDS Legal Network primarily because sex workers were not at the table when the model was developed. Australia, New Zealand and Germany have opted for decriminalization. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be on their societies. On another note, Spain has now established the first sex workers’ union in Ibiza.
Terry Bedford, one of the interveners in the Supreme Court case publicly asked the Prime Minister six questions including “what is a sex act?” She makes the familiar point that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.
Not all sex workers are on board with decriminalization and certainly not all feminists. Where does that leave me? Firmly on the side of decriminalization. At the same time, the day may come when people no longer want to do sex work. To be honest, a big part of me looks forward to that possibility.
For more on this subject, check out the Rabble.ca podcast debate on the recent legal ruling.