Violence is Violence, Not Just an Inherent Part of Prostitution–Canada at a Crossroads on Prostitution Policies

A major contemporary debate surrounding prostitution policies exits between advocates for decriminalization (the removal of laws prohibiting the exchange of sex for payment from the books, and does not decriminalize violence) and proponents of the end demand tactics, also sometimes referred to as the Swedish or Nordic model that criminalize the clients rather than the sex workers. Yet, sex workers still reported being adversely affected by this legislation (

Such a dispute is underway in the Canadian Parliament. In 2007, three Canadian sex workers filed a lawsuit challenging the Constitutionality of Canada’s anti-prostitution laws. Before then, prostitution was legal in Canada to a limited degree–though some of the activities surrounding prostitution were illegal. Specifically, the sex workers challenged the criminalization of running a brothel, third parties who made a living at least in part off prostitution (such as bodyguards, drivers, accountants, etc.), and street solicitation. Under the latter of these, communication in public for the purposes of prostitution is illegal–which criminalizes street-based sex workers. As Nikki Thomas explains, this provision criminalizes not only communication between sex workers and clients about the exchange of sex for payment, but also sex workers publically communicating with each other about safety issues related to prostitution ( ).

On Dec. 20, 2013, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled these anti-prostitution laws Unconstitutional under Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees the right to life, liberty, and freedom. Yet, there’s a catch. The Supreme Court gave the Canadian Parliament a year to review the legislation and pass alternative prostitution laws. Parliament is in the process of doing this and if Parliament doesn’t pass new prostitution legislation by the deadline, then Canada will have no prostitution laws (basically, a decriminalized system that the sex workers who filed the lawsuit are advocating for) or Parliament can request an extension.

Parliament is considering C-36, which will further criminalize clients and still criminalize street solicitation if anybody under the age of 18 is around. Though supporters tend to sugarcoat over how this would still criminalize sex workers and act like it is mainly about going after the clients, opponents argue that such legislation will further endanger sex workers and is no better than the legislation deemed Unconstitutional. For example, this would keep street workers in isolated, more dangerous areas because they may not necessarily know if anybody under the age of 18 is around when they’re in public or somebody under this age may come by while they’re communicating even if they weren’t there at first.

I’ve been following the hearing on this legislation, reading the transcript ( and watching videos. Something particularly disturbing is how supporters of C-36 consistently treat violence like an inherent part of prostitution, though this attitude is nothing new and not specific just to Canada. This treating of violence like just part of the job description promotes and encourages violence, even if that’s not the intent. It can give people who commit violence against sex workers the message that their violence is just something to be expected in prostitution. Attitudes like this trivialize violence against sex workers and promote a climate where sex workers who experience violence are subject to a “what did you expect” type of attitude rather than being taken seriously.

Such attitudes bring to mind a quote by Gary Ridgeway, who committed the largest known serial killing spree in U.S. history. He killed at least 48 people, targeting street sex workers. He said that he targeted sex workers because he hated prostitutes and could get away with killing as many as he wanted. This happened under a criminalized system of prostitution and for about two decades, he was right about being about to get away with killing sex workers. It wasn’t until almost two decades later that he was charged with the murders.

Ridgeway’s comments illustrate how violence against sex workers, including murder, is not just inherent to prostitution. Rather, hatred against sex workers and oppressive policies promote such violence. Arguments that violence is an inherent part of prostitution are dangerous, overly simplistic, and do nothing to address such factors that lead to violence against sex workers. These include the factors already mentioned as well as how they intersect with misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, racism, sexism, and classism to create a climate where violence is perceived as just a natural part of prostitution. Yet, this is not natural. It’s based on oppression. Such oppressiveness promotes violence, not prostitution in and of itself. Here is very powerful testimony from Naomi Sayers of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform. Her testimony in a Parliament hearing on C-36 is in the second video on the left side of the screen in this link ( .

The situation in Canada is a microcosm who global debates concerning prostitution policies. Yet, in Canada, sex workers filed a lawsuit challenging anti-prostitution laws which made it to the nations highest court, which ruled unanimously in the sex workers’ favor. Also, in Canada, this dispute concerning prostitution laws has extended beyond the blogosphere and public as well as private discussions outside of political arenas, and made it specifically into Parliament.

How the Swedish Anti-Prostitution Legislation Harms Sex Workers

Sweden’s government has often led the way in progressive social justice legislation, but not with anti-prostitution laws. On the surface these policies may seem progressive. After all, they break through the double-standard in which sex workers (who are largely women) are more likely to be arrested than clients (who are largely men). The legislation criminalizes the clients, but not the sex workers. So what’s wrong with this legislation?

If gender double-standards were the only problem with anti-prostitution laws, then there would be nothing wrong. However, there’s a lot more wrong with anti-prostitution laws and it’s important to look beyond the surface.

Sweden’s anti-prostitution policies have received praise from various anti-sex work feminists, politicians, and others. Yet, various Swedish sex workers have  expressed very different feelings about this legislation. Rather than just jumping on the bandwagon in support of the Swedish model, Petra Ostergren spoke with Swedish sex workers about this and listened to their concerns. Despite the fact that this legislation was “supposed” to protect them, Swedish sex workers reported the opposite. They reported that their work became more dangerous after this legislation passed and that they have less agency and control over their working conditions. For example, they reported a higher percentage of clients demanding unsafe sex acts and less agency to turn down such clients. Sex workers also reported that criminalizing the clients hindered their ability to screen them, thus further jeopardizing the sex workers’ safety.  Here’s a link to Ostergren’s report:

Additionally and relatedly, this legislation is very pateralistic, so it’s interesting that some people who identify as feminists would support it. It totally infantalizes women in prostitution, treating us like we’re all incapable of making decisions for what we do with our own bodies. This is very disappointing, especially from a country’s that’s often so progressive. I would expect better from the Swedish government.

This is exemplifies how paternalistic legislation under the guise of protecting women further endangers us. (I’m not Swedish, but use the term “us” because I’m a woman and a sex worker). I realize that not all sex workers are women, but I use the term “women” because the language in the legislation targets women in prostitution as victims, without recognizing the multiple realities that exist in prostitution and how legislation such as this increases the likelihood of victimization. Though I don’t like to impose the victim label onto sex workers, various Swedish sex workers seem to feel that the legislation victimizes them more than sex work does.

The anti-criminalization of consensual sex acts whether for free or for payment is the way to go.  The abuses and violence that sometimes occur inside and outside of prostitution would still be illegal.  To criminalize somebody just for paying for sex makes as little sense as criminalizing somebody just for having sex for free.  Though this may seem overly simplistic, it is this simple when we look at anti-prostitution laws.  Just like I find it problematic to overly simplify complex concepts, I also find it problematic to make concepts more complicated than they need to be.  Though there are a lot of complexities in prostitution, legally speaking, the only thing that differentiates prostitution from non prostitution is the exchange of payment for sex.

Here’s additional info. about the Swedish model:

So, if you think the Swedish model is progressive, think again…

Sex Worker Advocates as Abolitionists

As somebody who supports the abolition of slavery, I should have as much right to identify as an abolitionist as anti-sex work people. Yet, I don’t feel like I have as much freedom to self-identify because the term abolition in contemporary times has become so heavily associated with being anti-sex work. It wasn’t this way in the 1700 and 1800’s, when the abolitionists were working to abolish legal slavery against Black people (not eradicate all sex work), but the anti-sex work folks have taken this term and re-conceptualized it, so it’s hard to identify as an abolitionist unless we oppose all sex work.  I would be very hesitant to go to a sex work event and identify as an abolitionist, out of fear that people would assume that I’m anti-sex work.

Thus, I encourage sex worker advocates to identify as abolitionists,  redefining the term and expressing how being anti-slavery doesn’t have to mean being anti-sex work. That would be so powerful. We really need to redefine how the rhetoric is being used, rather than just letting the anti-sex work people have control over it to promote very oppressive policies and attitudes against sex workers. I see this is necessary in order to make progress.

Also, some vegans  identify as abolitionists since we support the abolition of animal cruelty and the human killings of animals for meat, dairy, eggs, etc. We  also typically seek to abolish the cruelty killing animals for fur or leather.   I say “typically” because I knew a vegan who said she doesn’t eat or drink animal products, but she  wears leather, which I don’t get. Nonetheless, this is another way we don’t have to be anti-sex work to be abolitionists.

Derogatory “Pretty Woman” Comments against Prop. K

Prop. K is an initiative on the San Francisco ballot to decriminalize prostitution in the city. I’ve noticed that in various interviews anti-Prop. K opponents brought up the unrealistic image of prostitution that “Pretty Woman” portrays to promote their opposition to Prop. K.   Yet, this has nothing  to do with Prop. K.  Prop. K isn’t about “Pretty Woman.”  It’s about ending the persecution of sex workers and promoting sex workers’ rights.  Regardless of whether prostitution is glamorous or not, sex workers don’t deserve to be persecuted for it.

Support Decriminalization of Prostitution at El Rio in SF Sept. 5, 2008

Please come to the benefit for Proposition K on the November ballot (decriminalize sex work).  This is a matter of worker’s rights. 
Lined up against us is the Republican Party and Pacific Gas and Electric (your utility payments at work thanks to the Public Utilities Commission and Gavin!).
With us is the Democratic Party, the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, Jeff Adachi, every supervisor except Alioto-Pier, feminists all over the globe, the legal community, and thinking people everywhere.
3158 MISSION. 
9:00 P.M 

Anti-Sex Work “Feminist” Hypocracy

I’ll start by saying that there are feminists who are very supportive of sex workers rights, but unfortunately, not all feminists are.  Some anti-sex work “feminists” refuse differentiate between consensual and forced prostitution, even though this does nothing to decrease forced labor or help people who really are victims of forced labor in the sex industry or any other industry.  This attitude promotes partrichacy and sexism, which I thought feminism was against. By denying that sex work can be consensual, these “feminists” deny the right to consent.  They are promoting the partriarchal, condescending attitude that women are incapable of making conscious decisions just because we do sex work.   I realize that people of various genders work in the sex industry, but I’m specifying women because these “feminists” emphasize how sex work is oppressive to women, while simultaeously  expressing oppressive attitudes toward women in sex work by denying out right to consent.  What hypocracy!

I support the right to work in the sex industry, the right not to work in the sex industry, and the right to exit the sex industry without being denied other jobs because prostitution is criminalized and on a person’s criminal record.

Proposed Prostitution Prohibition Legislation in Providence, Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, private sex in exchange for payment between consenting adults is legal, but bad legislation has been proposed that would make this illegal in Providence.  Even though the proposed legislation would make it a crime to sell sex acts, Donna Hughes, a prostitution prohibitionist, said that this legislation would not victimize prostitutes or unduly harm prostitutes.  I totally disagree.   By criminalizing the sale of sex acts, prostitutes could be persecuted under this horrible legislation.  Also, Donna Hughes mentioned that many prostitutes are coerced into prostitution by pimps.  I’m not denying that this is true in some cases, but it’s also true that some workers who engage in sex for payment don’t even work for pimps.

That’s also a really fucked up argument to use for promoting laws that further criminalize sex workers in prostitution.  Should people in prostitution really be criminalized for being coerced by pimps…I argue no.  That’s treating victims and survivors like criminals.  Abusive pimps would still be criminalized under laws prohibiting other abuses.    For example, if a pimp assaults somebody, that would still be illegal under assault laws.  Here’s a link to an article addressing this terrible  legislation:

20/20 Story on the “D.C. Madam:” Where was the Sex Worker Advocacy Voice?

Like many media portrayals of the sex industry, the 20/20 report that aired on May 4, 2007 about Deborah Palfrey’s escort service demonstrated irresponsible journalism. For example,  an activist for the prohibition of sex work was given a voice, but no sex worker advocates were.  This showed a lack of balance.

There are various ways this report could had been better. For example, 20/20 could had  addressed how the criminalization of prostitution compounded the problems Brandi Britton was experiencing and played a major role in “pushing her over the edge” with tragic results. Britton was an escort and a professor who worked for Palfrey. If sex for payment wasn’t criminalized, then she would not had been arrested for prostitution and publicly chastised when the story got all over the media. Regardless of whether she really engaged in prostitution, the bottom line is that she could not had been arrested for it if it were decriminalized. Like Brandi Britton, many sex workers have been persecuted under these prohibitionist policies toward prostitution and I can only imagine how many more sex workers also committed suicide, as Britton allegedly did,  after being persecuted and chastised.