On June 13, 2012, in a momentous occasion, the Supreme Court of Canada will begin to hear the Bedford et al case, where three courageous sex workers have challenged three laws in Canada’s Criminal Code which impact the work of sex workers. Though we are immensely pleased that Canada’s highest court has agreed to hear our case, we are dismayed that so many other women’s groups refuse to hear our voices.
In recent years, a different strain of feminism has engaged itself in the sex work debate. It calls itself “abolitionism”, and claims that sex work can only be seen as a form of violence against women, and a form of “asymmetrical criminalization” (which criminalizes the clients, rather than the providers) should be considered as an alternative to the full decriminalization of sex work.
Most sex workers refuse to call these advocates “abolitionists”, preferring to call the members of these groups “prohibitionists”. While they believe their efforts are similar to attempts to abolish slavery, they are simply trying to push a market underground through the use of prohibition. We maintain that we are not slaves, but autonomous human beings who have the right and capability of deciding whom we sleep with, and under what conditions.
Any attempts to subdue or suppress a market or industry is a form of prohibition, and despite the absolute failure of any attempts to prohibit people from making personal choices – such as the historical case of alcohol prohibition, and the modern prohibition on certain drugs and substances – they persist in their insistence that we be “rescued” from ourselves, and in doing so, they attempt to silence our voices.
Self-described abolitionists have no idea how insulting and condescending it is for us to be told we’re incapable of making our own choices. One of the principle tenets of feminism is that women should have the right to make our own choices with our own bodies, and those choices should be free from external influence or legal sanctions. By refusing to grant us agency over ourselves, they undermine the very fabric of feminism itself. This is a form of violence against women, and their desperate need to silence us just perpetuates the violence that women continue to experience.
To a rational person, the very existence of sex workers’ rights groups should be enough proof to accept the premise that many of us choose this profession for ourselves. On Saturday, June 8, dozens of rallies were held across Canada in support of sex workers’ rights, some of which had hundreds of people in attendance. Taken together, this means that well over a thousand outspoken sex workers were willing to take to the streets to demand our rights, and we had the support of thousands more who were unable to attend. These rallies were not forced, and we were not encouraged by the so-called “pimp lobby” to hold these events – these were the product of our own efforts to be heard. It is simply impossible to believe that so many of us could have attended these rallies for any other reason, other than to fight for the rights that all Canadians deserve – the right to choose what we do or do not do with our own bodies.
It would be inaccurate to say that every sex worker in Canada engages in sex work entirely out of choice, and there is no doubt that exploitation occurs, despite the fact that the frequency of such cases are grossly exaggerated by those who would continue to criminalize consensual sex between adults. However, the laws as they currently exist do nothing to help those in exploited situations, and only perpetuate that exploitation by limiting our access to support and assistance. Any who support the status quo – or any form of criminalization – are effectively supporting exploitation, and supporting the continued marginalization of all who participate in the sex industry.
There is considerable debate as to what the “proper” laws for sex work should be, and I will examine that issue further in a follow-up article tomorrow. However, the absence of “good” laws is no excuse to keep bad laws on the books, and that’s exactly what six separate judges have ruled these laws to be: bad laws that put all sex workers in danger. It’s time to stop allowing ideology to trump rationality, and long past time to start listening to the sex workers who have borne the brunt of the impact these bad laws have caused.
It’s time for Canadians to wake up, and have a real conversation about our rights and freedoms. Sexual activities between consenting adults are nobody else’s business, and it’s time to get the governments out of our business, and out of our homes.