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Sex work is a diverse profession. Although sex work takes a variety of forms, the dominant image in the minds of Canadians seems to be street prostitution.
Since the introduction of Bill C-36, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, media coverage has included the same stock photos: the Red Light District, stilettos boots on a street or young girls in mini-skirts leaning into cars. These standardized images are not new. They circulated in the media long before the Bedford challenge went before the Supreme Court of Canada.
In fact, whenever there has been public discussion of the sex industry these stock photos inevitably reappear. It is within this environment of hackneyed images that Bill C-36 was introduced. The message was clear: the Harper government views sex work as a social ill.
Minister Peter MacKay’s press conference furthered this narrative by denouncing sex work as a “degrading activity” and labelled sex workers as “victims” and their clients as “perverts.” These invectives deliberately cast the entire industry into a binary framework intended to limit opposition to the bill and to silence the discussion of the complexities and nuances of the sex industry.
It is important to recognize that the sex industry is vastly more complex than current public discourse. Because sex workers may work in a variety of locales: on the street, in massage parlours, for escort agencies, or independently from their homes, there is a spectrum of risks, advantages and cultural environments.
There are examples of sex workers, some who have drug addictions, who feel that prostitution is not a choice. Conversely, there are examples of sex workers who willingly choose it as a viable profession and who are successful and well-adjusted individuals.
Bill C-36, and its concomitant Tory invectives, intentionally misrepresents the entire sex industry by focusing solely upon its most egregious manifestation: the survival sex trade. By limiting the focus, the Tories are attempting to limit the entire debate.
Politically, the framing of the debate in a binary fashion through value-laden nomenclature creates a wedge issue that appeases the moral wing of the Conservative Party. Socially, by casting the spectre of street prostitution within the minds of Canadians, which has only been supported by stock images within the media, the Tories have ultimately ensured that few people in the industry will publicly oppose Bill C-36. The voices of respectful customers who understand the importance of human connection and who view the industry as companionship will not speak out after they have been branded as “perverts” by the federal government.
Additionally, the most articulate sex workers who perfectly counter the negative stereotypes of the industry may be unwilling to accept the social stigmatization in publicly coming forward. For many, myself included, the industry has been a stepping stone to social advancement. Were it not for the fiscal opportunities of the escorting world, I never would have pulled myself out of poverty nor would I have been able to afford the luxury of obtaining two university degrees.
Because the social cost is far too high for many stakeholders, important narratives will be left untold. The exclusion of these diverse voices makes the public discourse incomplete and ultimately creates a vacuum that allows distortions of the industry to perpetuate. This fragmentation also allows others to define the sex industry in their terms. Perhaps this was the government’s intention. By framing the debate within a binary system, the government has attempted to silence a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of the sex industry.
Sex work is a complex subject that merits a sophisticated and progressive debate. This discussion should include, but is not limited to: socio-economic inequalities, health and safety concerns of all sex workers within the various avenues of the industry, and the important issue of freedom and personal choice in a democracy.
Erica Obsession is a 14 year veteran of the sex industry based in Vancouver, Canada.
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