In an act of "sick and twisted" irony, Canada's new prostitution law takes effect on December 6, the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre and a day now set aside to mourn violence against women. Sadly, the law will lead to violence against sex workers, most of whom are women.
Sex workers commemorate December 6 too -- to mourn their colleagues brutally cut down by serial killers, or assaulted and raped by police, or beaten by predators posing as clients. This happens not because prostitution itself is "inherently violent" (it's not), but because criminal laws kill women.
Laws against sex work stigmatize sex workers, push them away from safe areas and support services, make them afraid of the police (who are often the worst perpetrators of violence), and put them in danger. This is the case regardless if the workers themselves are supposedly "decriminalized" such as in Sweden, where sex workers are still targeted and punished under procuring and immigration laws, and effectively denied social services unless they "exit" prostitution.
As Swedish sex worker and activist Pye Jacobson points out, the Swedish state facilitates and endorses violence against sex workers on the premise that it will motivate them to quit. Sweden's 2010 evaluation of its law prohibiting the purchase (but not the sale) of sex lacks credible evidence of any positive effect of the ban, except for one: the "intensified social stigma of selling sex" and other "negative effects of the ban that [sex workers] describe must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution" (Section 4.6.4). It appears that the Swedish government doesn't care that "whore stigma" kills sex workers.
Things are shaping up similarly here in Canada, except our new law has several additional restrictions compared to Sweden that could make things even worse. Sex workers are still criminalized because they can be arrested for communicating in any public place near a school, playground, or daycare. A new ban on advertising supposedly exempts sex workers who advertise their own services, but actually criminalizes anyone who helps them or publishes their ads, meaning that sex workers can't really advertise at all unless they also have their own publishing company. (They might even need to chop down a tree to make their own paper, as one sex worker quipped at a recent Q&A session on the new law that I attended.) The new law is supposed to allow sex workers to hire some beneficial third parties to help them, but these people still risk being prosecuted because the new law's allowable exceptions are vague and up to police discretion.
To their shame, radical feminists who oppose sex work have joined forces with right-wing groups and the federal Conservative government to pass this law. The latter are both motivated by animosity towards women's rights and autonomy and non-traditional sexual expression, which strongly implies that radical "feminists" have some problems with those things too. I believe they do, at least when it comes to rights for sex workers.
Radical feminists falsely believe that only a small number of "privileged" or "unrepresentative" sex workers actually choose to do sex work, while the majority are exploited. When confronted by the reality that most sex workers around the world are in fact demanding that their work be decriminalized and treated as real work, radical feminists imagine they are suffering from "false consciousness" and have been brainwashed by the patriarchy into believing it was a free choice. Sweden's 2010 evaluation of its law helpfully explains why active sex workers insist they chose sex work and are not victims: "…the people selling their bodies are always being exploited; however no one wants to see it that way as long as they are still being exploited."
So, like their Swedish counterparts, radical feminists in Canada show no respect for sex workers who refuse to be victims and refuse to quit. By caring only about the minority who actually have been exploited in the sex work industry, radical feminists are sacrificing most sex workers in order to rescue a few.
I attended a press conference in Vancouver last month at which seven masked sex workers spoke. When I asked them their opinion of radical feminists, they had some harsh words:
"I just never could understand why it would be ok for a feminist … to compromise the safety of one group of women to save another. And in fact, that's illegal under the International Charter of Human Rights … you cannot use the Charter to subvert the rights of one group in order to favour another. And so when they say to me, I should choose not to do sex work for the betterment of all women, I believe it's because they want me to be their maid. I think they need low-paid women to clean their toilets and make their fast-food hamburgers. And they would sooner see me doing that, because in the back of their minds, they think I'm having sex with their husband. It's just all the myths rolled into one." -- Jordan Doe
"Radical feminists feel that sex work is demeaning to women. I don't believe that sex work is demeaning to women. Sex is a natural act that people do. The fact that somebody gets paid for it makes no difference." -- Jillian Doe
"My opinion of them is that they just don't understand. I feel that people who are radical anything are people who have yet to experience what it is they are so against. They don't have that circle, that network of people, that can say, hey actually it's like this, or it's like this, it's not what you're saying, it's not what you think. And I feel that sometimes they get sort 'bandwagoney,' they just jump on and say, oh this sounds really good, we're doing really good. But they don't actually do the research behind it, and they don't take the time themselves to sort it out. So I don't respect them. I think they should read a book, other than headlines." -- Jasmine Doe
"I really can't even wrap my head around it. What reality do they live in? Really? You're going to abolish prostitution? How about abolishing poverty? How about abolishing homelessness? How about abolishing these other things and maybe that might fit in, you know, when people are exploited or have no choice because of a need. But for them to even think along these lines, it's impossible. I don't know who they think they are, how they think they can accomplish that. To me, it's crazy-making at its best. It's insanity." -- Sheri Kiselbach (former sex worker)
"Radical feminism is eerily similar to fundamentalist Christianity in that: 'Do what you want with your body as long as I think it's best for you.' and I hope for the day that all people under feminism can respect my right to believe and act differently." -- Jenna Doe
There's a common theme in these comments by sex workers -- that radical feminists are really behaving more like fanatics -- i.e., people with dogmatic, absolutist, ignorant views; people who can't tolerate others who live outside the strict moral boundaries that the fanatics want to impose on them. Jenna Doe's comparison of radical feminism to fundamentalist Christianity is particularly apt, since that religion (and others) operate on a patriarchal basis with a special focus on repressing sexuality. We can see that at work in radical feminism, with its "End Demand" strategy that naïvely seeks to repress male sexuality and encourage male monogamy. On the surface, radical feminists express concern about women being damaged or destroyed by having lots of casual sex with strangers for money. They do seem to genuinely believe that (even though it's sexist and prudish to say that all women are harmed by paid sex), but is it possible they also have a punitive streak that secretly despises female sex workers? For starters, it would help explain why they have zero interest in male and transgender sex workers.
Several theories on the cultural suppression of female sexuality were evaluated in a fascinating 2002 paper by psychologists Roy Baumeister and Jean Twenge. They found that the evidence most favours the theory that "women have worked to stifle each other's sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage." Applied to radical feminists, this theory suggests that they see sex workers as competitors who ruin things for other women by being too sexually available. Which would mean that radical feminists are supporting the patriarchy, not fighting it. As feminist writer Amanda Marcotte explains: "In a patriarchy, women are usually tasked with the job of monitoring female sexuality and enforcing norms of modesty." So perhaps radical feminists want sex workers to join their purity movement and stop corrupting men. Although they like to demonize men for thinking they're "entitled" to sex, don't they really mean everybody?
With Canada's new prostitution law, the Conservative government and radical feminists are using the criminal law to restrict the consensual sexual activity of adults. This is a serious violation of human rights, reinforces stigma and discrimination against sex workers, and increases the risk of violence against them. It makes this December 6 one of the saddest commemorations of the Montreal Massacre since the shootings occurred 25 years ago.
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.
Photo: Kaytee Riek/flickr