Sex workers’ delighted cries of excitement resounded across the country last week when they heard the thrilling news that the Supreme Court of Canada had tossed out the worst of our country’s criminal laws against prostitution. The decision means that basic human rights and legal protections have finally been extended to one of society’s most marginalized groups.
The ruling is indeed a positive and crucial step forward in the fight to gain rights and recognition for sex workers. But the victory was also painfully bittersweet. Sex workers’ tears of joy were mixed with sorrow over the memories of terrible tragedies -- all of them heartbreakingly unnecessary. Far too many sex workers paid the ultimate price for this outcome. Each one of them was a real human being whose life, dignity, and hope were ripped away from them and their families.
Laurel Irons, a Vancouver advocate for sex workers, put it this way (personal communication):
"I am of course elated and hopeful with yesterday's news … but it also hurts, in that way it can hurt when someone admits to a wrongdoing they denied for years... When the highest law in the land says, 'yeah you were right, these laws are harmful', I'm left struggling with the knowledge and memory of all the lives lost, the violence, shame and hurt inflicted, the children apprehended, all the choices people had to make based on fear and sometimes a desperate need for survival. I’m finding it really hard not to think once again how senseless it all was, how fucking avoidable. How things could have -- should have -- been different... For all of this I find myself mourning all over again."
Raven Bowen, an activist and researcher in Vancouver, said:
"I'm celebrating but I'm also very sad. I've been involved in sex worker rights organizing since 1995… Only a handful of people [back then] gave a crap about sex workers. City hall and law enforcement were all deaf to our cries for justice, social inclusion, basic human and labour rights and protections for sex workers... [Recently] I spoke to an officer… who was positioning himself as a champion of the oppressed and taking credit for how far we've come. This individual dismissed my acknowledgement of the difficult road that was traveled to get where we are today and all of the unnecessary loss of life caused by, among other things, police inaction."
Sex workers believe that the criminal laws just struck down were a major contributing factor in the known murders of at least 200 of their colleagues and friends since the 1970’s, and for the disappearance of hundreds more.
Homicides of sex workers were rare before Canada enacted its first anti-solicitation law in 1972, but they began within a few years and continued to escalate, especially after the introduction of the “communicating” law in 1985 (prohibiting public communication for purposes of prostitution). Over 300 sex workers were murdered or went missing in Canada in the intervening 28 years. Vancouver was ground zero for much of the violence, with a serial killer likely responsible for dozens of murders and disappearances of sex workers in the Downtown Eastside.
Those women didn’t die because prostitution is inherently violent or exploitative. They died because the laws stigmatized them and made it easier for predators to target them. Sex workers couldn’t take measures to protect their safety because the laws criminalized key aspects of their work. It was illegal to talk to clients in public, so street workers couldn’t take the time to screen clients or negotiate services -- they had to jump quickly into cars to avoid police attention. But they couldn’t move indoors because it was illegal to work at any permanent venue, such as a massage parlour or even their own homes. It was also illegal to band together with other workers for greater safety or pay people to help them. And if something bad happened, they were afraid to call the police for fear of arrest. The police wouldn’t take violence against sex workers seriously anyway, and some even harassed or assaulted them.
The prostitution laws also made it easier for third parties to exploit sex workers with impunity, because workers had little recourse to legal protection or other supports. Decriminalization will make the industry more transparent so that bad actors can be held accountable. For example, sex workers and their clients are in the best position to detect and report exploitive activity, but they will do so only if they know they won’t be arrested themselves. Even though abuse and exploitation happens in the sex industry, it is not nearly as widespread as commonly assumed. Most third parties are decent and honourable people who simply help facilitate work for the workers and keep them safe. Under the prostitution laws, however, people such as call screeners, drivers, and security guards were criminalized under the “living off the avails” law.
With decriminalization, workers will have equal protection under the law, including enjoying the benefits of labour law protections, the right to organize, occupational health and safety measures, human rights and equality, freedom from discrimination, and protection under criminal laws if a crime is committed against them. The prostitution laws deprived them of these basic freedoms and protections that the rest of us take for granted.
It’s taken the sex worker rights movement decades of struggle just to get governments and police to take sex workers seriously as human beings and citizens with rights. Finally, they’ve achieved that recognition, but at a very high cost. As we move forward into an uncertain future -- amidst the grandstanding and scare-mongering propaganda by politicians and prohibitionist groups -- we must never lose sight of what’s really at stake here: peoples’ lives.
On the day of the Supreme Court decision, Raven Bowen wrote these words to a group of sex workers and allies:
"Sex workers suffered and many died for every bit of progress we experience today. Over the coming weeks and months please do not allow anyone to lose sight of this fact. There are many revisionist historians out there who will disrespect those who we've lost by silencing us when we speak about our memories and our pain. I say this because like many of you I was there, fighting, in the dark."
Laurel Irons expressed the strong need for healing in the sex work community as it tries to meet the many challenges of the work ahead, which she said must include "mass education" of the media, policy makers, and general public:
"I also hope to see space made for us to come together to process all the things this actually means to us, to support one another, to begin to heal now that we can do so out of the darkness... We know there are so many out there still hustling in dark corners, who may be feeling all the complexities of this in isolation, or who may not actually experience the positives of this for some time coming. I just want to turn my attention to all of these folks and hope we can be strong for one another in these early, tenuous first steps of healing, as we learn to walk together in the light, for a change."
Joyce Arthur is a founding member of FIRST, a national feminist sex worker advocacy organization based in Vancouver that lobbies for the decriminalization of prostitution in Canada. She works as a technical writer and pro-choice activist.