The power of defining and labeling

The first time I came across the labeling theory was in my second year sociology of deviance class. There are several theoretical perspectives and critiques when it comes to the labeling theory. Some of the names that come up when I think of labeling theories are Mead, Lemert, Becker, and most significantly, Ervin Goffman.

These two terms, defining and labeling, are almost synonymous to one another. It is almost as if the one cannot exist without the other. If you define one’s lived experiences, then you label their lived experiences and if you label one’s lived experiences, then you define their lived experiences. One does not exist without the other. 

So what does defining one’s lived experiences mean, and what does it mean to label another person’s lived experiences? This question is extremely relevant to the Bedford case which is going to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in June (and to have your case go all the way to the SCC is pretty darn important). 

Just recently, J. Wagner of the SCC denied leave to intervene to several prominent sex work organizations in Canada that would have represented the voices of sex workers from various geographic regions (Maggies, 2013) In Maggie’s press release, Kara Gilles, was quoted as saying, “When POWER and Maggie’s intervened in Bedford at the Ontario Court of Appeal, we were able to share sex workers’ perspectives and experiences that the Court would otherwise not have heard. It’s a shame that this time around, both sex workers and the judiciary will miss out.” And that is accurate on so many levels: both sex workers and the judiciary will miss out.

The fact that the judiciary denied leave to this coalition of sex workers is an act of defining and labeling in an extremely political sense. It says that this group is incapable of speaking or defining their own lived experiences and labeling their own lived experiences. More importantly, it says that this type of work isn’t real work. 

From the principles of Maggie’s, sex work is real work and it is socially legitimate and valuable! 

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