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 (http://www.petraostergren.com/pages.aspx?r_id=40716).
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 ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GIoTV9ypn8 ).
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 (http://openparliament.ca/bills/41-2/C-36/?page=3) 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 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/former-sex-workers-make-their-cases-in-prostitution-bill-debate-1.2698425). .
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.