Last week I spoke at a conference of women from my union about the current state of collective bargaining and pay equity. While there I noticed on the agenda that Daisy Kler from Vancouver-based Rape Relief was scheduled to speak the following day on “The 2010 Olympics and Opposing the Legalization of Prostitution”. While I thought that was a pretty interesting topic for my union to be covering (and in fact one of our Vancouver locals is doing a forum on it at the end of the month), I thought it was a shame that only the one perspective was being aired there. For you see, Rape Relief and a couple other organizations in Vancouver would have you believe that the correct feminist, radical and moral response it to continue to support laws criminalizing sex work in Vancouver and anything else is mired in incorrect analysis and hatred of women (and children).
Vancouver, BC is a city that is known not only for its sex work industry, but also for the tragedy associated with it. Not only do we have an open “kiddie stroll” only blocks from where I live, our city is the site of one of North America’s most prolific serial killers – a man who picked sex trade workers off the streets over a period of two decades without being detected. Despite the facade of “world-class”, we are also a city of shooting up in alleyways and industrial zone blow jobs, not to mention a burgeoning pornography scene. Successive “Shame the Johns” campaigns have done little more than push sex trade workers into more dangerous parts of the neighbourhood, and predators continue to hunt women there between the darkened corners and dumpsters (as predicted, the arrest of one prolific killer has done little to stem the disappearances of women in this city).
With this history, it came as no surprise to me in February when an organization called the West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals (WCCSIP) popped up in the media – a first in North America. Formed to promote a harm reduction approach to prostitution in this city, WCCSIP has lobbied local and federal governments to allow a trial brothel in Vancouver for a two year period to see if death, disease, and violence can be countered for some of the industry’s most vulnerable workers.
Because that’s who this debate is really about anyways. In Vancouver 80% of the sex trade is conducted behind closed doors and off the street. Escorts place ads individually or via agency and receive men in their homes, or attend hotel rooms and residences (all of which is legal – prostitution itself is not illegal but bawdyhouses, procuring, and living on the avails of prostitution have been since 1913. Escorts mainly work legally, obtaining a permit through the city to do so). It’s the on-street prostitution that is the most visible of course, also called “low-track” sex workers on the street are those who are too addicted, too old, or too “unattractive” to be accepted by agencies for work – generally the poorest of the women in the trade and by far the most vulnerable, reporting much higher levels of violence and abuse than those working through agency or private contacts. When Rape Relief and other organizations attack measures to support sex workers in the city, this is primarily the group of people who suffer for the lack of support.
I guess I’ve always had a “duh, of course sex work should be legalized” approach, so when I moved to Vancouver thirteen years ago I was surprised to discover that any organization calling itself “feminist” could be so opposed to the work that women end up doing to support themselves and their families. And while at root I believe the problem that RR and others have is one of morality, their arguments break down into the following broad categories:
Let’s take those on one at a time shall we?
All prostitution is violence. It is not legtimate to call it “work”: This comes a little too close to “all sex involving penetration is rape” and the concept that women are incapabable of consenting to and even enjoying sex work. When we look at the vast majority of “male” industries such as mining, logging, construction not only do we see work that is highly undesirable but is also physically punishing in ways that often end in death. You don’t think that a general labourer who is hefting boards around a worksite despite his destroyed knees or back feels degraded? Or for that matter a women who works 12-hour shifts on her feet in a retail store or a shitty restaurant? When capitalism uses our bodies in ways that are damaging, it is always wrong, but it’s a fact of the society we live in and short of revolution this isn’t changing any time soon. Harm reduction at least means basic health and safety standards in place, good working conditions, and social support for those who do the work.
Legalizing sex work institutionalizes the trafficking in women and children: It seems to me that a brothel regulated and controlled co-operatively would do exactly the opposite. On-street prostitution as it exists now leaves women vulnerable to pimps and “protection”, and if you removed most of the sex trade from the street you could ensure that co-operatives only allowed those of-age entry into the working life. Besides, no one is advocating legalizing underage prostitution which is a contention of RR and others.
There is no way to make sex work safe: Studies show that the majority of off-street prostitutes do not experience violence at all in their work, or do only rarely (60 % in a recent poll said never, 80% said never or once). And while dozens of women working the sex trade have gone missing and/or been murdered in the past decade, every single one of them was working on-street. A woman protected by other women in a co-operative brothel is a lot less attractive to a predator – and the less marginalized women considred “prey” we have on our streets, the fewer predatory johns our communities have to deal with.
Legalizing sex work makes it acceptable for women to stay in the industy and does not help them move on into more “acceptable” professions: Obviously continuing to marginalize drug users has really helped to clean up Vancouver’s drug problem. Right? Wrong. Shunning people does not turn them into productive members of society, it does not give them avenues for escape or change should they decide to opt for them, it does not even create the desire in them to “fit-in” but instead an urge to lash-back. Like InSite, bringing people into an organized setting allows us to provide models and options for education, health care, and family-planning support – and essentially allows women engaged in sex work to provide peer support for each other. Not to mention that this argument again is one of what is “acceptable” for women to make choices about. While I acknowledge that it is a complex situation that brings many women to sex work, I have also been well-acquainted with women for whom it was a conscious choice – a way to make money on a flexible schedule without having to give in to minimum wage hell.
I’ve been perusing a lot of news stories about this lately, reading reports and following the work of Libby Davies in Ottawa around this matter. What I’ve noticed mainly is that the abolitionist position is one based on emotive response and rarely are studies or reports cited to back it up. Occasionally a sex worker is trotted out to decry efforts to decriminalize the industry, but it is fair to say that the vast majority of women in the industry are on the other side. They are demanding to be recognized and legitimized through a process that allows them to control their own labour in a clean and safe setting. Not only that, they are organizing themselves around those demands to do research, community consultations and build their presence. An excellent example can be found in the Living in Community Action Plan which was a partnership project spearheaded by sex trade workers and provides some of the most useful information around the issue you will find anywhere.
I was triggered to write this today because of a news story about a union friend of mine’s sister in St. Johns, Newfoundland whose body was found two days ago stuffed inside a suitcase. My partner similarly lost a family member a few years ago, though her body was at least found intact. While I don’t believe that a harm reduction approach to sex work will solve every problem, I certainly believe that these women didn’t have to die like this, and I hope that we get our shit together as a society so future women don’t.