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|Written by Roxy Munro|
|Friday, 19 March 2010 00:00|
Canadian society is paradoxically hyper-sexualized and sexually repressive. One need only look to the magazine racks at the local grocery store to see this paradox and be bombarded with its obvious (hetero) sexual messages and images. Ironically, this hyper-sexualisation serves to perpetuate the sexual repression in our society because it powers hegemonic heterosexual privilege which in turn results in the persistent "other-ing" of sexual minorities. As far as we may appear to have come as a society with respect to "sexual liberation," in many ways we have not progressed at all. One particular example of Canada's sexual repressiveness (and oppressiveness) is the criminalization of sex work/prostitution.
In Canada, the exchange of sex for money is technically legal. The activities that enable it to take place, however, are illegal under the Criminal Code of Canada. For example, communicating for the purpose of prostitution is illegal, as are bawdy houses. Sex workers are also prohibited from practicing prostitution in their homes, and they can be evicted from their homes if they are found guilty of such offence.
The laws which effectively criminalize sex work were enacted in the 1980s as a way to deal with the apparent "nuisance" caused by street-based sex workers. Yet the laws only made sex work more dangerous for sex workers by driving sex work underground where sex workers' safety is less likely to be protected. The fact that it's illegal for sex workers to communicate for the purpose of their work renders them especially vulnerable. Sex worker advocacy groups and reports from sex worker consultations describe how street-based sex workers, in particular, are often inclined to jump into cars that stop on the side of the road in order to avoid getting arrested. (The threat of arrest is significant, since more than 90% of charges and convictions related to sex work have been brought under the communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution section of the Criminal Code). By jumping into the car, however, they place themselves in a more precarious position because they don't get the chance to negotiate their conditions at a safer distance. Research has also shown that the enforcement of the communicating law drives street-based sex work from centrally located residential or commercial neighbourhoods to industrial or remote neighbourhoods where sex workers have less people to turn to for help if prospective clients or predators become aggressive or violent.
Ultimately, the laws that effectively criminalize sex work and their enforcement often force sex workers to work on the margins of society and in circumstances where they are vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and other threats to their health and safety.
The Roots of Criminalization
The criminalization of sex work in Canada is rooted in social processes which gained their momentum during the nineteenth century, when the growth of industrialist capitalist societies led to the regulation of emerging "social problems." As the social sciences expanded, the discipline of sexology -- the science of sexuality -- grew. As a result, sexuality became medicalized by professional groups and "experts" who were generally ignorant of their own privilege and power over the populations they began to categorize and pathologize.
Sexuality therefore became regulated by the notion of "sexual perversion." Any sexual behaviour that did not align with the "scientific experts'" ideas of "normal," such as same-sex sexual relations, was classified as "abnormal," "deviant," and "ill." At the same time, this sexual science had a gendered character. Middle-class white women were increasingly classified as "passionless" and lacking in sexual desire. Consequently, women who were seen to express sexual desire, which especially meant women who sold sex for money, were defined as "social problems" and regulated accordingly.
Religion, of course, still had an influence over sexuality during this time. The dominant religious beliefs defined the social norms that ultimately influenced how this new secular "scientific" knowledge materialized. Consequently, this "science" informed the ideology of moral conservatives, seen clearly in the social purity movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which served to legitimate patriarchy as a dominant social force, and which introduced notions of "sexual respectability," ostracizing "outcasts" such as sex workers.
Present-day Canadian laws that have been designed to address sex work have failed to meaningfully take into account sex workers' perspectives and experiences. As a result, the human rights of sex workers or violations of these rights have essentially been ignored.
The Decriminalization Debate
In recent years, sex work has been subject to an increasing amount of debate around criminalization/decriminalization. Decriminalization, which will be described later, represents the best approach to regulating sex work because it is respectful of the health, human rights, and dignity of both the sellers and buyers.
While women make up the majority of sex workers, sex work is conducted by women, men and trans individuals. Nevertheless, debates over legislative approaches to sex work tend to focus on sex work as a woman's industry. This focus is partly due to the media coverage that the previous generations' second wave feminists received during the anti-pornography movement. Anti-porn feminists argued that pornography exploited women and was intricately linked to violence against women. Even though porn was alive and well in queer culture, the focus of the anti-porn movement was on porn created for straight men's consumption. Many of the prominent feminists from the anti-porn movement have been vocally critical of sex work as well, arguing for the abolition of sex work on the same grounds -- that it is exploitative of women. Even though anti-sex work feminists acknowledge that sex work is done by men and trans individuals, their arguments still focus on the need to abolish sex work because it is intricately tied to violence against women and women's oppression.
The debate for or against decriminalizing is not limited to feminist circles - religious groups, legislators, LGBT groups, health professionals, other interested parties, and ordinary citizens have their own perspectives on the debate. Highlighting feminist viewpoints (both for and against) is particularly insightful, at least with respect to women sex workers, for a couple of reasons: first, morality remains rightfully absent from the debate (which is often the case with other groups as well, such as LGBT groups and public health professionals). Second, the fact that anti-sex work and pro-sex work feminists argue their positions ultimately in the name of women's empowerment challenges all of us to take a critical look at what it means to live in a patriarchal society and what "empowerment" really means and further challenges us to re-think women's sexuality in general.
Feminists who are supportive of decriminalization see it as the legislative approach that will make sex work safer, more economically viable, and less stigmatized in society. Decriminalizing sex work has the potential to do more good than harm, specifically by helping society transcend the rampant sex negativity that exists.
When it comes to women selling sex, one can't ignore the pervasive sexism in our capitalist patriarchal society. We live in a hypersexualized heteronormative world, where (straight) women's sexuality is still subject to double standards; women face unrealistic beauty expectations, and women still lag behind men in social and economic participation and rights. Women of colour, differently-abled women, trans women, lesbian/bi women, and working class/poor women are especially vulnerable to marginalization due to the multiple oppressions that they face.
Having this understanding then does seem to validate the arguments that sex work is exploitative of women. Especially with street-based sex work, some women are coerced into the industry by abusive partners, by poverty, or by addictions.
But some women are sex workers because they really like sex. This idea seems hard for many to grasp because our traditional social norms have conditioned us to disregard female sexuality, to think of women as passively sexual. Sure, with the introduction of Sex and the City and the popularity of Cosmopolitan (all marketed to and created for middle-class white heterosexual women, mind you), the idea that women can be sexually aggressive has gained some popularity; however, women ("girls") are still categorized according those traditional good girl/bad girl labels. "Sluts," of course, remain the bad girls.
Supporting the criminalization of sex work in the name of women's empowerment is highly problematic. Criminalizing sex work does not, in any way, address the many reasons that women are "forced" into sex work (such as poverty, abuse/violence, and/or addiction). As described earlier, criminalizing sex work only drives sex work underground and makes it less safe.
What does this do for women's empowerment? Well, it doesn't do anything remotely constructive for women because it leaves women in the same predicament -- the societal context within which women perform sex work remains unchanged and unchallenged, and the views about women's sexuality remain unchanged and unchallenged. Furthermore, criminalization serves to perpetuate the stigmatization sex workers face. Therefore, women sex workers who feel they choose this profession or, at least, feel they have no better option to survive in our weakening welfare state, are basically shamed by society, and excluded from public discourse.
Time for Reform
In Canada, progressive thinkers like Dr. Frances Shaver, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Concordia University, have been making recommendations for "the decriminalization of prostitution activities between consenting adults and for social reforms promoting the health and human rights of sex workers, and the health of communities." Shaver has closely examined three main legislative approaches to sex work, namely, abolition ("the Swedish Model"), legalization, and decriminalization. Based on her research, Shaver concludes that decriminalization is the most effective approach for sex workers and residents in any given community.
Both legal and social reform are necessary in order to decriminalize sex work. Legal reform would primarily involve repealing or modifying certain laws and sections of the Criminal Code. Nonetheless, since legal reform alone isn't enough to protect and enhance the health and safety of sex workers or community health, social reforms are needed to address the underlying social problems that marginalize sex workers.
Social reform must involve education programs (i.e. for police officers, the judiciary, and policy-makers) and public education campaigns in order to debunk myths about sex work; reduce marginalizing stigma; challenge sexist understandings of sexuality; and challenge sex negative thinking altogether. Effective social reform will actively involve sex workers in legal and policy discussions about sex work and in the design of education programs about sex work. Furthermore, sex work should be addressed as work and, accordingly, sex workers should be afforded the rights, protection, and respect that Canadians in the traditional labour market are granted.
Canada can look to New Zealand's success with decriminalizing sex work. New Zealand introduced the Prostitution Reform Act in 2003. In 2008, the New Zealand Ministry of Justice published the Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003. After having been in force for five years, the Review Committee found that the sex industry didn't increase in size and "many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalization of the sex industry have not been experienced. On the whole, the PRA has been effective in achieving its purpose."
Even though New Zealand is already starting to show positive effects of their legislative reform, it is imperative to remember that social reforms need to be allowed time in order to have an effect, especially when it comes to shifting societal attitudes. As Dr. Michael Goodyear, an Assistant Professor in Dalhousie University's Department of Medicine, reminds us, "It is worth noting that it took at least twenty years following the decriminalisation of homosexuality for there to be appreciable changes in discrimination and prejudice, and that this required pro-active human rights legislation." Therefore, if Canada is to move towards decriminalizing sex work, there needs to be a real commitment to the implementation of a variety of social reforms.
Those opponents of decriminalization who argue sex work is inherently violent towards women are certainly not empowering women by keeping sex work criminalized. With sex work criminalized, sex workers are less safe and have less access to support and resources due to the accompanying stigma in society. Whereas, if Canada commits to a decriminalization model and implements necessary social reforms along with the legal reform, sex workers will see their safety improved over time. Decriminalization is also the best legislative approach through which sex workers can be afforded dignity and respect since their work will be treated as work rather than as a criminal activity. Finally, the education component that should be implemented alongside legal reform will better serve all members in our society as it will challenge the pervasive sex negativity in our culture and call into question overarching oppressions, such as sexism, which leads to the devaluing of women and violence against women in the first place.
 Sex work is the preferred term for "prostitution," which is the more familiar term for the exchange of sex for money. Sex work is preferred because it clearly focuses on the activity as work, whereas "prostitution" is a morally charged term linked to deviance. Sex work is actually a broad term that refers to different kinds of activities that make up the larger "sex work industry," such as stripping, providing escort services, animating erotic phone conversations, and so on. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, sex work will refer simply to what would otherwise commonly be called prostitution.