Woman signs petition on No More Stolen Sisters poster

The Supreme Court ruling that struck down Canada’s prostitution laws calls for the government to put forward policy and legislation on sex work, within a year. Lawyer Alan Young and claimants Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch  hope the current laws will fall without any laws to replace them, arguing that sex work is just another form of risky manual labour.  Abolitionist feminists argue just the opposite – that if the public views sex as work, women can never achieve equality at home or in the workforce. 

The image of the streetwalker on The Stroll is outdated, say decriminalization advocates. They point out that the modern sex worker may look like any other well-groomed single woman with a condo. She advertises through Craigslist or other websites and makes her business arrangements online, so that she can run research clients before she meets them. She’s not standing on street corners attracting the wrong kind of attention or creating a public nuisance.

Despite some implicit class and race nuances, the argument has some appeal. At first hearing,  “sex trade work”, sounds a bit like “sexual freedom.”  Any woman who has let a boyfriend give her money in a pinch, or any man who’s found more than comfort with a sex worker, will assert that the johns are really decent guys who are just looking for some company. Still, the nature of the occupation is that even well educated online escorts who screen their clients carefully are vulnerable, as the August deaths of two online escorts showed.

Behind at least some of the feminist support for the Supreme Court challenge, IMO, lies hope for a class of professional sex workers who can offer men technically proficient sex because their true emotions are elsewhere. With women-oriented women well in charge, supporters look to licensing, regulations and zoning to protect both provider and client.

On the other hand, Abolitionists advocate the Nordic legal model, which treats all sex-for-sale as sexual assault and penalizes only the customer.  They say that, at the very least, the great majority of sex workers are in the trade as an absolute last economic resort,  often as a result of deception or coercion.  At worst, the sex trade involves human trafficking: buying and selling sex slaves.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) intervened in the Bedford case, advocating the Nordic model. They released a statement after the Court’s decision, which says in part, “Aboriginal women are grossly overrepresented in prostitution and among the women who have been murdered in prostitution. It is not helpful to divide women in prostitution into those who ‘choose’ and those who are ‘forced’ into prostitution.  In most cases, Aboriginal women are recruited for prostitution as girls and/or feel they have no other option due to poverty and abuse.  It is the sex industry that encourages women to view prostitution as their chosen identity.

“With the legalization of prostitution, NWAC fears that Canada will become a key destination country for traffickers and pimps, and there will be a huge increase in the rates of sexual exploitation and sexualized violence among Aboriginal women and girls. NWAC President, Michèle Audette stated that ‘NWAC’s position is that prostitution exploits and increases the inequality of Aboriginal women and girls on the basis of their gender, race, age, disability and poverty.’” 

Another way to view the various sides of the argument would be along the spectrum of belief in the free market. Claimant and retired dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, who called her business the Bondage Bungalow, was among the minority at the top of the trade, with her own business and staff and a comfortable and fairly discreet clientele. Like geishas, such top-of-chain workers say they provide a personal service that goes far beyond sex. 

Abolitionists argue that the usually young women at the bottom of the supply chain tend to face steep social barriers such as racialization, class, and inadequate education. For every cultivated, genteel online escort who enjoys an occasional pleasant date that ends in a sizeable tip, they argue, there are at least a dozen disadvantaged women/men/trans swapping sex for survival. Unlike, say, selling drugs or working in a casino, having sex with someone for money usually involves a certain loss of personal autonomy.  

Mind you, a lot of people are going hungry these days, and some are feeling desperate.  In a sluggish service- and retail-oriented economy, some would argue that piecework is better than no job at all. Decriminalization advocates talk about co-operative brothels, with workers voting on policies and hiring their own protection.  Unfortunately, so far that model doesn’t seem to have succeeded.

Just as with casinos, with brothels, a few players (usually employers) win, and maybe even win big. Most players find the odds are heavily weighted against them, especially those who are already at some disadvantage. “…far too many Indigenous women and girls [have been] placed in harm’s way, denied adequate protection of the law, and marginalized in a way that allows some men to get away with carrying out violent crimes against them….” states the Amnesty International “Stolen Sisters” report on the more than 600 missing Aboriginal women, thought to have been murdered, probably because somebody wanted sex without having to pay for it.

“The reality is sex workers are 60 to 100 times more likely to be assaulted than anyone else,” said Marion Little, executive director of PEERS,” according to and article in the Victoria Times-Colonist.  “The non-profit group provides advocacy and outreach for Victoria sex workers,” and helped organize Victoria’s Red Umbrella Day, the international day to end violence against sex workers.
“It’s a sad day that we’ve now had confirmed that it’s OK to buy and sell women and girls in this country. I think generations to come — our daughters, their granddaughters and on — will look back and say, ‘What were they thinking?,'” Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies Kim Pate told the CBC.  “To say that [prostitution] is a choice when you’re talking about the women we work with is to say that in fact it’s OK to just exploit them,” she said.

The Elizabeth Fry Society is part of the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, along with other groups that are on the frontlines dealing with women who have been abused or assaulted:  the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, Native Women’s Association of Canada, Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes, La concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle, Regroupement québécois des centres d’aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel (CALACS) and Vancouver Rape Relief Society.        

“The Women’s Coalition members work from coast to coast providing front line crisis and anti-violence services and supports,” says the website, “representation and advocacy for women and girls who are or have been prostituted, who have been criminalized and incarcerated in relation to prostitution, who are trying to escape prostitution, who are targeted for or are at risk of being prostituted, and who have been subject to male violence, including prostitution….”   

“…It is not an equality response to decriminalize prostitution and label it women’s work
after community resources have been decimated and women stripped of opportunities for educAtion, employment, and pay equity…We want more than prostitution for women. We want meaningful employment options to actually give women choices. We want affordable education. We want addictions services, and health care. We want affordable child care and opportunities for all women and girls.”

“The Coalition urges Canadians to speak out for women’s substantive equality through
community resources, such as guaranteed liveable income, support services for women
and girls leaving abuse and exiting prostitution, addictions services, health care,
and opportunity for education – not through the decriminalization of the sale of their bodies
for profit. Decriminalize the women in prostitution, not the johns and pimps.”

Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...