Much has been said and written since the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three prostitution laws in December because they imposed dangerous conditions on sex workers, thereby violating their constitutional right to security of the person. Sex work is legal in Canada, but the criminal laws prohibited various activities around it, including communicating in public, operating or working in a brothel, and living off the income of a sex worker.
The basic question we should be grappling with is: How best can we ensure the safety and rights of sex workers? But that’s not really the issue that people seem to be most concerned about, except for sex workers themselves. The battle has become about how best to control sex work under the guise of “protecting” sex workers. Most anti-prostitution activists want to treat sex workers as victims to be rescued and criminalize clients to “end demand,” even though that model has failed in Sweden and Norway. On the other hand, many Conservative members of Parliament, some police forces, and right-wing religious groups favour full criminalization of everyone involved.
Sex workers across Canada are virtually unanimous in advocating for full decriminalization as the best protective model, and their position is based on reams of evidence, experience and common sense. So why aren’t sex workers being listened to? Why are people so determined to “abolish” sex work? What are they really afraid of?
Prohibitionists (those who want to abolish prostitution through prohibition) can’t seem to make up their minds whether sex workers are victims to be rescued or “dirty, evil whores” to be punished and eradicated. This paradox represents a modern version of the old Madonna/Whore complex and the sexual double standard. In Sweden for example, so long as a woman agrees to quit sex work she can be “rehabilitated,” but women who don’t want to quit are denied legal protection and social services, may suffer eviction and loss of custody of their children, and are deported if they are foreign workers. In other words, if a woman refuses to conform to the stereotype of “victim” or “fallen woman redeemed” she is stigmatized and punished.
The Swedish law is strongly backed by a segment of feminists whom sex workers call “radical feminists” because of their stance against pornography, sex work, transsexuality and anything else that doesn’t conform to a vanilla vision of sex. Despite being feminists, their views are closely aligned with those of right-wing conservatives and Christian fundamentalists, which should set off alarm bells in the mind of every thinking person. The right-wing religious contingent longs for a return to tradition and sexually chaste women who save themselves for marriage. They espouse patriarchal ideals where a woman’s place is in the home with children, but is that view really much different from the one in which women who choose to do sex work must be punished for it?
I believe that both views are rooted in antipathy to free sexual expression and autonomy, especially for women who dare to have sex in ways that offend moral sensibilities — sex for pleasure in the case of the Christian Right, and sex for money in the case of prohibitionists. The belief that women need to be protected not only from others but from themselves gives radical feminists the self-appointed right to speak for sex workers and to “rescue” them, in the same way that anti-abortionists have appointed themselves to save women from the “dangers” of abortion by criminalizing it and promoting abstinence until marriage.
I’ve written previously on the many striking parallels between anti-abortionists and radical feminists. Both cast women as victims and use dehumanizing language to describe sex workers and women who have abortions. Both are paternalistic and don’t recognize women’s agency. Both demonize third parties as exploiters or profiteers and want to criminalize them — “pimps” and brothel owners for radical feminists, and abortion providers for anti-abortionists. Both exploit the sad stories of the minority of women who feel damaged by sex work or abortion, and both ignore the majority who choose sex work or have abortions without regret. Both rely on ideology and emotional appeals, as well as their own B.A.D. science (biased, agenda-driven) full of distorted statistics and fabricated “facts.” For example, both falsely claim that abortion and sex work are inherently dangerous and bad for women. And both share the delusion that prostitution and abortion can be abolished via criminal laws, despite overwhelming and conclusive evidence that women cannot be stopped from selling sex or having abortions, and that criminalization of either puts women in danger.
The belief that sex work violates human dignity reflects society’s moral disapproval of sexual freedom for women, and disbelief that women can actually choose to do sex work. But treating sexuality as if it’s some sacred thing to be reserved for love or marriage is narrow-minded. Sex is just sex — there’s all different kinds including casual sex, and people should have complete freedom to do whatever they want sexually as long as they’re not hurting others. Retired sex worker Maggie McNeill says: “The decision to sell sex, which seems so extreme and shocking to prudish middle-class women, is for many working-class women not really that big a deal; this is especially true when other members of her peer group are already doing it and she can make 15 times as much in one hour as most of her countrymen make in a day.”
In puritanical 19th-century Europe and America, it’s estimated that 5.5 per cent of women were working as prostitutes at any given time. Today’s estimate is 0.3 per cent of all women. It therefore seems logical to conclude that the best way to “end demand” for paid sex is to continue our path towards more sexual freedom, especially for women. I have argued that the best way to reduce the need for sex work (if that’s what we want) is to encourage more women to engage in casual sex more often. After all, modern access to effective contraception and safe, legal abortion means that women need not be held back by fear of pregnancy.
Instead, prohibitionists are determined to repress the “dangerous” male sex drive, a project guaranteed to fail. Some even liken sexual intercourse to violence against women because of the penetration, which is an offensive and total negation of women’s sexual agency and desire. Prohibitionists also say that men don’t have a “right” to sexual access to women. But sex is a primal human urge that cannot be denied, everyone needs human intimacy and touch, and sex has significant physical and mental health benefits. Since many people have difficulty forming relationships or finding sexual partners (such as the elderly, disabled, obese, socially withdrawn, etc.), sex workers often deliver a necessary health-care service that should be funded by medicare.
Whether money is exchanged for sex or not seems almost irrelevant, since a lot of sex is ultimately transactional in nature, including within marriage. Transactional sex goes back to the very origin of our cultural evolution — which women engineered and controlled, according to anthropologist Chris Knight in his book Blood Relations. He credits women’s granting of sex in exchange for meat as the basis for establishing permanent home bases, a unique innovation that led to agriculture and civilization. By synchronizing menstruation, women were able to stay home (where it’s safer and easier) and compel men to go hunting and bring back meat to share before being allowed sexual relations. Knight amasses a wealth of evidence to support this view, and other research corroborates it. Taboos around menstruation originally represented women’s power over life, and men’s fear of that power. Ironically, the birth of agriculture gave rise to private property, giving men the means to overthrow women’s power by treating them as property along with the crops and livestock.
Some feminists may not take kindly to the idea that human culture was founded on a form of prostitution, but that would be a reflection of their own biases against it. If you posit instead that sex (and sex work) is a means of power that women have over men, and a positive expression of their sexuality and autonomy, then the perspective changes dramatically. I’ve often wondered — since feminist prohibitionists blame the patriarchy for prostitution, would it end if we managed to achieve an egalitarian world? My answer is no, since there will always be people who cannot obtain sex, and sex workers would likely enjoy influence and prestige in an egalitarian society. Our modern society’s negative attitudes towards promiscuous women are a legacy of patriarchy and the male need to guarantee paternity of children by controlling women’s sexual behaviour.
Nickie Roberts said in the foreword to her book Whores in History:
“I am wholeheartedly on the side of the unrepentant whore, the most maligned woman in history…in [this book she] speaks up to denounce and challenge her oppressors, and thereby overcome the centuries of lies, denial and stereotyping that have been her lot. Only when she is listened to by the rest of our society will women finally and irrevocably be able to end our division into Good Girls and Bad Girls.”
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: Jenn Farr/Flickr