Today, March 3, is International Sex Workers Rights Day. Let’s talk about the phrase “Rights, not Rescue” and what that means to sex workers.
I am not a lawyer, a criminologist, and I’m certainly not a politician. I’m a sex worker. My friend circle is mostly current or former sex workers. I’ve worked with hundreds of sex workers during my career. My interest is sex workers’ rights and isn’t — as what peeved off lawyers say to politely diss each other — purely academic.
Ontario Court of Appeal decision
Last month, Ontario’s top court ruled in an appeal that the current sex work provisions in the Criminal Code are constitutional. By contrast, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, a coalition of sex work organizations, is mounting a constitutional challenge where they are arguing the opposite. While reading the decision something struck me as funny, but in that self deprecating, ironic kind of way.
The judge wrote about hypothetical sex workers, and what kind of working arrangements would be a crime under the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA). The judges theorized about these hypothetical students who are entering the sex trade. Even here, there is a play at respectability; as if only being a student makes entering sex work a rational choice. They keep hypothesizing about the students leasing a place from which to work. And while I’m sure judges try to be professional and impartial, this made me scoff.
Yes, selling sex is legal in Canada. But if you think it’s hard to find a place to rent during our ongoing national housing crisis, good luck finding a landlord who would willingly rent their place to sex workers. This is regardless of whether they simply want a place to live or an incall space.
To this point, Airbnb has an algorithm that weeds out sex workers, not just for terms of service violations. Airbnb even bans sex workers that only use its services for non-sex work purposes. It’s like giant corporations don’t realize that we too go on vacations.
I fail to see how this set up scenario would show anything mirroring reality, just as when I heard the judges liken strippers to personal trainers at the judicial review. Sure, they’re both workers who are often (mis)classified as independent contractors. Yet only one of these sets of workers had trouble accessing the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and the Canada Recovery Benefit in the early days of the pandemic, and it wasn’t the personal trainers. Those who decide our fate don’t live in our reality.
Canada’s sex work laws
Canadian sex work laws are based on the Nordic model, which originated in Scandinavian/Nordic European countries, and is also called “End Demand.” The theory goes that if only the purchasing of sex is criminalized, sex workers are somehow protected. Our clients will be less likely to want to see us, thus eventually doing away with the social ill that is prostitution. Or something.
In reality, these types of laws harm sex workers and make it harder to report violence and labour violations in strip clubs and massage parlours. Most importantly, it prevents sex workers from being able to effectively screen potential clients, which helps ensure our safety.
The preamble to our current federal legislation, PCEPA, is explicit and to the point: “Whereas it is important to denounce and prohibit the purchase of sexual services because it creates a demand for prostitution.” This is followed by: “Whereas the Parliament of Canada wishes to encourage those who engage in prostitution to report incidents of violence and to leave prostitution.”
Why doesn’t the Parliament of Canada wish for us to work in safety and dignity instead of tying our imagined trauma to an exit story? How can one be concerned about the safety of a fellow human while taking away the mechanisms that a person and their community, more broadly, use to feel safe?
The benefits of sex work
Sex work, like any other job, exists on a pendulum. Some days are awesome. Some are awful. Most are in between. But unlike other jobs, the freedom to (for the most part) set your own hours is unparalleled. Sex work can be built around your life, as opposed to building your life around work.
Sex work gives space for people to drag themselves out of poverty on a most basic level. It gives students time to focus on their studies. It allows disabled people to work around their health flare ups. It allows parents to spend more time with their kids and for caretakers to care for sick family members. It gives people time to volunteer to worthy causes. It allows those who are privileged and make a high income to invest, to travel and generally enjoy themselves. Why would we want to give that up?
Parliamentary hearings on sex work laws
Currently, there are hearings being held in Parliament that aim to review PCEPA.
The quiet dream is that the review will make positive legislative changes for sex workers. I’m not holding my breath, given how rudely sex working participants are treated in the hearings, and how little time they get to speak in comparison to their opponents, who you guessed it, aren’t sex workers at all. Rather, the opponents are the usual alliance of social conservatives, and Evangelical Christians, mixed in with law enforcement.
If one is being cynical, police depend on laws that make it easy to criminalize marginalized people for their job security. We’ll get to the human trafficking whataboutism and how police benefit from that shortly.
Some well meaning folks may think that sex work should be legalized. But if we look at who profited from the legalization of marijuana, we see that the profits don’t go to the communities that were historically criminalized for marijuana offenses. The same happens with sex work. Profits stay out of Black and Brown communities, and instead go to those who can buy their way into the system.
Other well meaning folks will say that, yes, some sex workers are there consensually, but what about human trafficking victims? Well, human trafficking in all forms, whether for labour or sex work, is abhorrent. But the reality is that sex trafficking accounts for only 19.3 per cent of trafficking victims. The majority of sex trafficking occurs in domestic labour, state-imposed labour, construction, manufacturing, and agriculture and make up a total of 60.2 per cent of victims.
When police ask for an increase in budget, and cite concerns of human trafficking, what they get are more guns, more officers, and more power. The budget increase doesn’t help survivors; that money doesn’t go to education, therapy or restitution for the victims.
It means that sex workers who are victims of crime can potentially get deported. It means that cops pull you over on your way back from the strip club, hear your accent, and demand to see proof of citizenship. It happened to me. It means no knock warrants. It means being pulled over for a traffic violation and having the cop ask for a list of your tattoos “in case you disappear,” as was the case for my friend.
Another friend was expecting a client at her incall, only to find four policemen attempting to enter her space without a warrant. It means cops booking dates with escorts in sting operations. In certain U.S. states, it’s legal for cops to have sex with sex workers, and then arrest them.
The way forward
There is a better way: decriminalization. Complete decriminalization. Sex workers and sex work advocates have been calling for complete decriminalization for years. The WHO agrees, as does Amnesty International and the ACLU. Even John Oliver devoted a long segment on his recent show to talk about decriminalization.
In New Zealand, sex workers were eligible for pandemic supports. Because sex work is considered work and not a social ill, sex workers are protected under the law from housing discrimination. They have labour protections, where they can seek remedy from the courts if they face sexual harassment in their workplaces. (There are flaws in this system that omit migrant sex workers from these protections; not even New Zealand is perfect.)
Overall, sex workers were meaningfully consulted prior to the legislative process. There hasn’t been an increase in the sex trade. The sky didn’t fall under the brunt of newly minted prostitutes, but there has been a decrease in violence against sex workers, and sex workers report that police treat them with more respect. Less violence and more respect sounds a hell of a lot better than more police power and less legal protections.
While the prognosis is cloudy, and social conservatives won’t leave sex workers alone to do our work in peace, there is a silver lining in the clouds. Student unions at universities recognize that many of their peers engage in sex work. Some progressive institutions invite sex workers as guest speakers. Some provide services to sex working students, or at least safe spaces, and some of these initiatives are led by current and former sex workers.
There are a handful of American political candidates, including candidates for District Attorneys, who are running for office on decriminalization and other “soft on crime” platforms. They see no need to punish marginalized community members for trying to survive under capitalism. They see sex workers as productive, valuable members of society; no different from other workers.
Most notably, we have Pennsylvania congressional candidate Alexandra Hunt. Yes, she’s a slender, college educated white woman who admits to being a former stripper. Stripping, while heavily stigmatized and over policed, is less stigmatized than full service sex work. Despite her relative privilege, Hunt still had to fight many battles and experienced stigma. Her candidacy and grassroots popularity opens the door, ever so slowly and ever so slightly for other sex workers, especially for BIPOC, full service and for LGBTQ sex workers.
The ending of the poem the Rescuers by Charlotte Shane, who is a writer and sex worker, sums up our collective feelings:
I will not listen
to one more story in which a sex worker dies
or hear one more woman advocate eradication
I’m warning you, I’ve never met a whore
who wasn’t a writer or could be cured
by a cage, never felt a single soft dawn
of regret for what I do in the bare
light of day.
No world on earth
outlasts us so in this book, the prostitutes
never die. Here they live free
forever, and are happy.
More succinctly, Alexandra Hunt has merchandise that simply says, “Elect Hoes.” And she’s right. Electing sex workers will lead to saner laws — laws that are based in the reality of the folks the laws are meant to govern. It will lead to laws informed by lived experience, expert public health guidance, and laws informed by our right to live in peace, safety and dignity.