Canadian feminists split over judicial decision overturning some legal restraints on prostitution
In the aftermath of last month’s landmark court decision that lifts the barriers to free trade in the sex trade, women’s rights activists are facing off.
They’re split over whether the ruling will make sex workers safer — or merely pump up profits for pimps and help organized crime to traffic women.
Examples of the divide?
“It is with stupefaction and anger that feminists have learned of the ruling,” the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres said in a media release.
“Worldwide, it is impoverished brown women whose bodies are being bought and sold,” argued the South Asian Women Against Male Violence (SAWAMV) in its statement. “This decision is not what we or our sisters want.”
And from the opposing corner?
“It’s wonderful that the court has recognized the harm of the laws, and has freed sex workers from the threat of criminal prosecution,” said the Pivot Legal Society, which has been fighting in the B.C. courts to overturn the country’s prostitution laws.
At the heart of this dispute is a wide ideological gap between feminists who believe that no woman is a commodity to be bought and sold and those who insist that, as with abortion, a woman has the right to control her body — while not risking life and limb.
That’s why Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court struck down as unconstitutional the bawdy house provision, which, arguably, by preventing sex workers from sharing premises, increased their risk of exposure to violence. Gone, too, is the “living off the avails” section, which criminalizes those being supported by a sex worker. While that was meant to target pimps, it also affects a prostitute’s live-in family, including partners, parents and adult children, as well as security guards who might protect her.
Also declared unconstitutional is the communication law, which experts say put street sex workers in the greatest danger because it did not allow them to safely screen “dates” before jumping into their cars.
“That’s a huge step forward,” says B.C. sex worker rights activist Tamara O’Doherty. “There used to be this idea we have to criminalize sex workers for their own good. So we (with opposing views on the court decision) do have this partly common ground.”
But there isn’t much of it.
“For me it’s not complicated to understand why there’s a divide: it’s two visions,” says Diane Matte of Montreal’s Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation.
Matte has a street-level view of the industry, and says it isn’t a pleasant sight.
That makes it difficult for her to understand why feminists would support the victorious plaintiffs — members of the Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC) — in the Ontario constitutional challenge.
“The SPOC women do not hide the fact that they want to open brothels,” Matte notes. “In other words, they want to prostitute other women. Why is that okay?
“I’m sorry, but why should I, as a feminist, support that a woman wants to sell another woman? And that doesn’t even look at the question of why men should have the right to buy women — and children — whenever and wherever they want. That’s why it’s impossible to reconcile these two visions.”
What abolitionists such as Matte want is to follow the so-called Nordic Model, one in operation in Iceland and Sweden, which has decriminalized sex workers while criminalizing their clients.
Others don’t buy that solution.
“As a criminologist I can guarantee you that that doesn’t work because it doesn’t remove the criminal element from prostitution,” says O’Doherty, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Making demand illegal, she says, only serves to drive sex workers underground.
Still, abolitionists believe that demand can be legislated out of existence.
“I don’t see sex work as natural or inevitable; it’s a practice we have constructed,” says Suzanne Jay of the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution. “We can dismantle it and create another system of relationships.”
When the state gets involved in a vice, does ‘no’ mean ‘yes’?
Last week’s Ontario Court decision striking down the laws forbidding the operation of brothels, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, and living on the avails of prostitution (which both the federal and Ontario governments have announced it will appeal) is the latest benchmark in the attempted normalization of behaviour that used to be more roundly condemned by the state.
Why it would be wrong to legalize prostitution
If prostitution were a job freely chosen, as the pro-legalization forces would have us believe, it’s unlikely that the average age of entry into that workforce would be 14.
Canadian sex workers win decriminalisation: a victory for women’s right to safety everywhere
The High Court in Ontario, Canada, yesterday abolished the laws banning street soliciting (communicating for the purposes of prostitution),working together from premises (bawdy house) and living off the avails of prostitution as they make sex workers more vulnerable to violence. The decision was a result of a legal challenge brought by three sex workers who argued that the laws endangered their health and forced them into unsafe working conditions. It is a victory for women and sex workers everywhere who have been campaigning for decriminalisation of grounds of health and safety.