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Laying the Law (Down)

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Issue: 46 Section: Sexuality Geography: Canada Topics: social movements, Women

May 30, 2007

Laying the Law (Down)

Legal context for sex work in Canada

by Jenn Clamen

The criminalization of sex workers contributes to grave human rights abuses. CC 2.0 Photo: Emma Campbell

Over the past 20 years at least 60 sex workers have ‘gone missing’ or have been murdered in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and the bodies of at least 20 murdered sex workers have been found in Edmonton. Current laws on prostitution and the manner in which they are applied put sex workers’ lives in danger by legitimizing and perpetuating abuse and violence against sex workers. Sex workers on the street are disproportionately affected by these criminal laws and specifically targeted for violence. Very recently, in Canada and elsewhere, these laws have allowed individuals, like Gary Ridgeway, dubbed “the Green River killer,” to use the ambiguity of these laws to his sordid advantage. In 2003, Ridgeway justified the murder of over 40 prostitutes and declared that he “picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

The criminalization of sex workers prevents them from accessing social protection and contributes to grave human-rights abuses of sex workers. This criminalization explains why sex workers are too often exploited, beaten, raped and killed.

Violence is a reality that sex workers around the world face everyday: violence through stigma, violence from the government, and violence from policies that put sex workers’ lives in danger. While prostitution is legal, virtually every activity surrounding it is not. The criminal code prohibits the public solicitation of business ("communicating"), the management and use of regular work sites ("bawdy-houses"), and any other managerial activity ("procuring"). This contradictory legislation makes it nearly impossible for sex workers to work safely and without intimidation from clients, police and residents. Not only has sex work been criminalized to this extent but sex workers and clients are subjected to oppressive treatment from their communities in terms of exclusion, violence and extreme repression. As reported by Stella, a Montreal-based sex-workers’ organization, “in 2002 residents of a central neighbourhood in Montreal went [after sex workers] out into the streets with baseball bats. The media tagged the event ‘a witch-hunt’. We saw the same thing in the summer of 2000 when police operations against clients began with intensity: three times more acts of violence were reported in Stella’s Bad Tricks and Attackers List."

Lobbies to amend, repeal, or reform prostitution law have had a vibrant presence since the 1970s. When sex workers began organizing for decriminalization in the 1970s, the term ‘sex worker’ rather than ‘prostitute’ was used to define their movement. This new term was created at the onset of this new social movement in an attempt to counteract claims that sex work is inherently exploitative and to emphasize that sex workers view their work as employment and themselves as workers. Sex workers’ fight for decriminalization of their work and better working conditions has since grounded much of the sex workers’ rights movement. In addition to this, sex-worker leadership and self-determination stands at the forefront of sex workers’ demands.

The sex-workers’ rights movement is not without its opponents. Among the most vocal sources of opposition are feminist abolitionists who view sex work as an inherent exploitation of the body and sex workers as victims with little agency. These feminists typically oppose decriminalization and concentrate on the eradication of sex work entirely. This perspective has posed grave difficulty for sex workers attempting to seek their rights. Many of the policy reforms that feminist abolitionists propose also criminalize sex workers and their clients, and perpetuate a cycle of abuse and exploitation. This perspective, at best, excludes sex workers, and, at worst, results in policies that impact negatively on sex workers’ lives and work. Whereas the majority of the mainstream feminist movement (including abolitionists and other liberal women’s groups) is seeking to end the exploitation they see as sex work, sex workers and other feminists are seeking to end exploitative conditions in sex work caused by dangerous working conditions and oppressive legislative contexts.

The above debate is one that has, unfortunately, stalled the progress of law reform efforts that seek safer working conditions for sex workers. Organizing around law reform has therefore posed a double challenge: Sex workers not only have to combat the negative stereotypes of sex work that feminist abolitionists perpetuate, they have also been obligated to educate parliamentary leaders on the realities of sex workers’ lives. For this reason sex workers insist on leadership around sex-work issues and on having input into the creation of laws that affect their lives.

In 2002, Canadian sex workers had a small opportunity to educate parliamentary leaders on sex workers’ realities, in the attempt to create safer working conditions. Vancouver East Riding MP Libby Davies had responded to the violence in her community by calling for the creation of a parliamentary committee (SSLR) to review current prostitution law. However, sex worker organizations found that the recommendations presented in their 2006 report did little to improve working conditions for sex workers; instead, the report encouraged common stereotypes of sex workers. Other initiatives have included a constitutional court challenge taking place in Ontario (2007) and one to take place in Vancouver in the next year.

Acknowledging that sex workers are in the best position to speak to their own realties, sex workers have, alongside these legal initiatives, created education initiatives and campaigns to highlight the human-rights abuses caused by current legislation. In Canada alone there are hundreds of sex workers organizing for their rights. Stella, a community resource group created in 1995 and run by and for sex workers, has been leading education campaigns, violence awareness, community building and empowerment strategies. Over the past 30 years numerous sex worker initiatives have been organized to create a solid front against human-rights abuses and to promote safer working conditions for sex workers worldwide.

Sex workers and their supporters insist that law reform is only part of the solution to a much bigger problem caused by stigma and discrimination against sex workers. Law reform has been the focus of morality debates around prostitution while the morality that guides prostitution laws has not yet been put into question. The current criminal code in conjunction with the discriminatory application of these laws contributes to a culture of indifference and violence towards sex workers for which all members of society need to be accountable. Sex workers need to be acknowledged as experts in law-reform debates, and their perspectives be privileged. Until sex workers are acknowledged as experts about their own experience and considered by the broader culture as full members of society, communities of sex workers will thrive and continue to create empowering tools by which they can put an end to the human-rights abuses they face.

Jenn Clamen is a sex-work activist based in Montreal, Canada. Next month in the Dominion Jenn will explore labour issues for sex workers and sex workers' organizing within labour movements

Resources for sex-worker groups and further reading:



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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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