| Decriminalize sex work

It's time we start respecting the world's oldest profession

Earlier this week, the Superior Court of Justice in Ontario struck down three provisions of the criminal code, namely those that prohibit the maintenance of a “common bawdy house” (performing sex work indoors), living off the avails of prostitution (living off sex-trade income), and communicating for the purposes of that trade. This exemplary decision, written by Justice Susan Himel, is an important move in the right direction – it breaks open the silence surrounding sex work and gives us the opportunity to reform the laws regulating it, not just in Ontario, where the decision will have a tangible effect, but throughout the country.

Prohibitions on sex work are an anachronistic vestige of Victorian prudery. Opponents of prostitution support their arguments to maintain criminalization by cobbling together legitimate concerns about human trafficking and violence against women with this prudishness, but in reality, their utopian goal of a world without sex work would end up hurting the women and men who ply that trade more than decriminalization. All this does is distract the cops from the serious business of stopping abuse and harmful exploitation by employing them to police the bodies of already-marginalized people.

Striking down these provisions will help sex workers protect themselves on the job. Now, instead of working in alleyways, in cars, in the dark, sex workers can do their job indoors – in safety, with body guards, with a support network. Now, instead of fearing that their landlords, their live-in partners, or anyone they take care of will be prosecuted for living off money gained through prostitution, they can without trepidation feed and clothe themselves and their loved ones, and pay employees – like body guards. Now, instead of having to abbreviate negotiations with clients, leaving sex workers without a strong feel for who they’re doing business with, they can take their time – discuss, sound out the john, and lay out the ground rules, keeping them that much safer from brutality and rape.

But these changes aren’t enough.

Worries about human trafficking and underage prostitution are well-founded. When the cops stop wasting their time trying to eliminate a perfectly legitimate profession, they can start helping sex workers protect themselves. To be able to call the police without fear of arrest – to tell them you’re in danger without thinking you’ll lose everything – that’s a real step forward. And the cops will be able to focus precisely on those dangers that remain: illegal trafficking of girls and women, boys and men in Canada and around the world. As the sex-work organization Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC) has said, a specialized police force should be created to deal with these problems – not with a sexual transaction occurring between consenting adults. Women forced into sex work by drug addiction and unscrupulous pimps should be assisted, not prosecuted; women freely choosing to work in the sex industry should be respected and exercise the same rights and responsibilities as other citizens.

With this ruling, sex workers will be able to form co-operatives, guilds, unions. They’ll be able to pay taxes, create health standards, establish workers’ compensation funds. Decriminalization is the next logical step according to SPOC, and that will make it easier for women to get out of sex work if they want to. Sex workers will be able to establish a community with their colleagues to offer government-supported resources, like skills-training classes so that those pushed into sex work by economic necessity can get out of a profession they might not enjoy.

There are other areas where sex workers need regulation and support. Parasitic, exploitative pimps should be taken out of the picture – sex workers can keep the books themselves, and when they have the right to hire their own receptionists, body guards, and other staff, the need for some other boss evaporates. Additionally, sex workers of colour and indigenous and trans workers will need specific protections and programs to keep them safe. The elevated threat of violence they’ve had to deal with is well known; so too the systemic and deadly neglect they’ve had to face from the police. Already marginalized through their racialization or their supposed gender transgression, these sex workers will need particular assistance. Getting the police off their backs is a great first step.

But we shouldn’t just go inventing solutions on our own. We need to listen to the people on the ground, who put their bodies on the line every day. Like I’ve said, SPOC has called for decriminalization – and that is the only logical next move. The organization has other suggestions, like sex-consumer education programs and professional accreditation for sex workers. Parliamentarians should pay close attention to these propositions. It’s high time they showed some respect to the people who work this trade.

Himel, the Superior Court justice, said that it’s now up to Parliament to “fashion concrete action” to regulate sex work. Rather than appealing this decision, the government should consult with SPOC, Stella, and other sex-workers’ rights organizations. No more paternalistic, top-down, bullshit solutions offered by technocrats with no idea what it’s like to work the sex trade. Let’s listen to the people involved for once.

William M. Burton is The Daily’s Commentary & Compendium! editor. BA 2010 Lettres et traduction françaises, he’s currently a special student. Write him at commentary@mcgilldaily.com.