Social Spaces and #SexWork: An Essay



One of the dominant images within the discussion around sex work includes the street-based sex worker as being a highly victimized and exploited individual, which is most often a young girl or younger-aged woman (POWER, 2012). While street-based sex workers account for the majority of those mentioned within these dominant discourses, like mainstream media, they only constitute 5-20% of the total sex work population (POWER, 2012). Despite this, street-based sex workers are consistently over-policed, as 95% of the charges pertaining to Canada’s anti-prostitution laws are applied almost exclusively to this occupation group (O’Doherty, 2011). This law is commonly referred to as the communication law, or solicitation for the purposes of prostitution (Edmonton Police, n.d.). If anyone communicates with a street-based sex worker to exchange sexual services for money or other objects, in a public place, then they are committing a criminal act (Edmonton Police, n.d.). The charges that are laid against street-based sex workers fall largely under the communication law in the Criminal Code of Canada (O’Doherty, 2011). It is this same law that is described as being applied in a “grossly disproportionate” manner (Doherty, Rosenberg, and Feldman JJ.A, 2012, para. 40). But still, this law accomplishes its legislative objective of “curtail[ing] street solicitation and the social nuisance it creates” (Doherty et al. 2012,  para. 38). The construction of the sex worker as a nuisance within legal discourses serves to reinforce hegemonic discourses of what is considered a legitimate occupation. From the above it is clear that through the policing of social spaces, street-based sex workers are not welcome

In his discussion of public space, Herbert J. Gans argues that public space is predominantly used for recreational purposes and that it may have some political advantages to usefulness (Gans, 2002, p. 333). In the context of public space, one might argue that street-based sex workers might create an unsafe space for younger children within these recreational spaces, making sex workers incompatible with said space. However, street-based sex workers (and their customers) are often discreet when it comes to advertising their services to avoid being persecuted and further stigmatized (November, 2012). Street-based sex workers occupy a uniquely, highly political place within these spaces, which often contributes to their increased visibility and vulnerability. This paper will argue for the decriminalization of the sex trade within Canada as means to include street-based sex workers as persons in social spaces to reduce their visibility and vulnerability. By suppressing or stigmatizing, visibility is increased and if they, lawmakers, want to achieve conformity or have these workers fit better into these spaces they should not politically disenfranchise them and instead provide them with the personhood to do so. When the binary is created between persons/non-persons in space then the problems relating to Gieryn’s question below become more acute.

Thomas F. Gieryn (2002) proposes the following question, “how do geographic locations, material forms, and the cultural conjuring of them intersect with social practices and structures, norms and values, power and inequality, difference and distinction?” (p. 468). By utilizing a Marxist theoretical perspective, I will discuss how street-based sex workers are excluded from the social as a form of social control in social space. First, I will discuss the history of prostitution in relation to the social. Then, I will show how institutional policies and practices dominate and control these spaces. Finally, I will conclude with a discussion on the importance of decriminalization of the sex trade as a human rights issue.



There is a time and a place for everything. Exactly what does this statement mean, and what does it entail for the discussion of social spaces? In The Condition of Postmodernity, David Harvey (1989) writes, “the common sense notion that ‘there is a time and place for everything’ gets carried into a set of prescriptions that replicate the social order by assigning social meanings to space and time” (p. 214). This statement implies that social space is policed and that the meanings ascribed to social space depend on the context. However, who has the power to ascribe social meanings to spaces, and whom benefits from this power to define these meanings attached to spaces needs to be examined, especially within the context of the sex trade.

There exist three paradigms within the academic discussion of the sex trade, the empowerment paradigm, the oppression paradigm and the polymorphous paradigm (Weitzer, 2012). The empowerment paradigm can be described as a model that views sex work as any other economic transaction and that “there is nothing inherent in sex work that would prevent it from being organized for mutual gain to all parties” (Weitzer, 2012: 7). Sex work is a term that was created in the 1970s by sex worker and sex work activist, Carol Leigh (Sayers, 2012). Leigh coined this term to remove the negative connotations that are attached to the use of the term, prostitution (Sayers, 2012). A sex worker is defined as someone who provides sexual services as opposed to the management of individuals in the trade (Sayers, 2012). The negative connotations associated with the term, prostitute, are emphasized within hegemonic discourses. Agustin (2007) writes, “belittling ideas about people who sell sex are perpetuated through police discrimination, media stereotypes, gender inequality, poverty, xenophobia, and state policies on sex and migration” (p. 191). But the question presents itself, how did these discourses become hegemonic to begin with? A further examination below will identify that these hegemonic discourses, as part of the social, serve to produce and reproduce the production of social spaces.

The second paradigm reference when discussing the sex trade is the oppression paradigm. While some people confuse the oppression paradigm with religious efforts, like those of the Salvation Army, to abolish the trade, it is significantly different. The oppression paradigm assumes that sex work is an “expression of patriarchal gender relations and male domination” (Weitzer, 2012, p. 10). This paradigm ignores the fact that there are many identities within the trade including males and gender non-conforming identities (transsexuals). This paradigm also ignores the fact that both men and women can be clients to sex workers.

The third and final paradigm, which will be useful for the discussion of social spaces, is the polymorphous paradigm. This paradigm differs from the previous mentioned paradigms because it is aware of the complex structural conditions shaping the sex trade, which exists along a range of agency and subordination (Weitzer, 2012).  The polymorphous paradigm discusses sex work in relation to the various occupational arrangements (independent, agency, indoor/outdoor, etc.), the association with power relations, and participants’ own experiences as sex workers (Weitzer, 2012).

Acknowledging these structural relations is crucial in the discussion of the sex trade since different racial, ethnic, gendered, and sexual identities are policed in different ways within social spaces. The polymorphous paradigm also does not prioritize agency or subordination over the other; it adopts the view that either agency or subordination can be present in the lives of sex workers at any particular moment. This particular paradigm is also cognizant of the policy implications that have negative effects on the trade and those that have positive results (Weitzer, 2012). Given my lived experiences within the trade, I align with the polymorphous paradigm within a Marxist theoretical perspective in acknowledging that polices have both negative and positive outcomes on this occupation group. As such, I will be utilizing this paradigm in arguing that social space sustains these complex structural conditions and power relations that exist within it.



            Hegemonic discourses serve a purpose in both producing and maintaining social spaces. Space can be seen as a container of social power. Foucault recognizes that space is a “metaphor for a site or container of power” (Harvey, 1989, p. 213). This locus of power is shaped through these hegemonic discourses, especially those that are formed within the media and through various institutions. The statement that Harvey repeats in his discussion of space and time, that there is a time and place for everything, implies that this policing of social space determines the structural conditions that occur in particular spaces, which are governed to reproduce accordingly. Harvey (1989) writes, “the common sense rules are certainly used to achieve and replicate particular distributions of social power (between classes, between women and men)” (p. 227). In relation to the social construction of the prostitute, these hegemonic discourses play a significant role. These discourses suggest that there is a time and a place for everything, especially for sex and sexual identities.

            The social can be defined as the ways in which “social problems, social reform, and social welfare are formulated and managed” (Agustin, 2007, p. 96). However, the social problem of the prostitute was not always prominent in society, as it exists today and as described earlier. The ‘social problem’ of the prostitute can be traced back to the change in social structures and the rise of the industrial era, specifically the rise of capitalism. Before the social construction of women as prostitutes in various societies occurred, it has been documented that the vagrancy laws dominated and controlled surplus populations, including the poor, unemployed (namely migrant or racialized) women, within capitalistic societies. In Poor Laws, A Historiography of Vagrancy Laws in Australia, Julie Kimber (2013) argues that vagrancy laws “can be found in almost all states that rely on the buying and selling of labour” (p. 538). It was through vagrancy laws that the social construction of poor, unemployed women as needing social control began to formulate.

These vagrancy laws were also directed at free labour, and they were used to construct a social order. (Kimber, 2013). The British colonies adopted these same laws as a method of social control over Indigenous populations (Kimber, 2013). In addition to the above, these laws were extremely vague and women were excessively prosecuted for being a public nuisance (Kimber, 2013). These laws, due to their vagueness, were also used to punish deviant sexualities (Kimber, 2013). The fact that women, who were described as being poor and unemployed, were heavily prosecuted through these laws, finds a parallel in the description of street-based sex workers as both poor and unemployed. Yet, describing street-based sex workers as unemployed reinforces the hegemonic discourse that sex work is an illegitimate occupation or is not considered employment at all. Space in this sense sustains a package of meanings, producing and reproducing those meanings, and where certain meanings matter more. Additionally, the fact that both vagrancy laws, and sex work laws, were geared toward creating a new social order and also reducing nuisance suggest that they were created as a form of social control. Again, due to the lack of definition for these laws, vagrancy laws were predominantly and disproportionately applied to those who were seen as poor and unemployed, which mostly included women.

With the rise of capitalism came the creation of private property, and the distinction between the private and the public sphere began to become more prominent. With the creation of the public and private spheres, the organization of social space also shifted. This shift can also be seen as a reorganization of social power. Harvey (1989) writes, “if space is always a containing of social power, then the reorganization of space is always a reorganization of the framework which social power is expressed” (p. 255). This reorganization of the framework through which social power is expressed is demonstrated with the construction of the prostitute as an identity that had to be policed. The construction of the prostitute in the social also occurred at the same time the relations of production, the family, began to emerge alongside the concept of privacy (Agustin, 2007). Before the construction of the prostitute as a social problem occurred, the prostitute was seen as an individual who was “a free-born independent woman and the law protected her economic position” (Agustin, 2007, p. 99). However, as the bourgeoisie were gaining status and power, the nuclear family began to play a prominent role in maintaining and regulating the social, in both private and public spheres.

The nuclear family, within the social, represented privacy, home, domesticity, or more eloquently “a particular way of life” (Agustin, 2007, p. 102). With the rise of the importance of the nuclear family within the social, the social order also began to change. Both order and the concept of privacy were expressed through the organization of the nuclear family (Agustin, 2007). As this conjugality became relevant for the social, it also became more vital to control those who did not adopt this way of life (Agustin, 2007).

The common sense statement, there is a time and place for everything, becomes more important in discussing the social. This notion of common sense, in reference to those that disobeyed the social order, suggests that they lacked sensibleness and judgement. If they did not have a place, then they must be policed. Hence, the more the structure of the nuclear family was normalized, and the more that some individuals did not have a place in this institution, the more they had to be policed. The social construction of the prostitute as being a social problem soon followed. Agustin (2007) argues that women who defied the values of the nuclear family and the notion of privacy symbolized social disorder. They were people “without proper places in a domestic structure” (Agustin, 2007, p. 104). In citing Lefebvre’s production of space, Harvey suggests there exists a permanent tension between the appropriation of space for individuals and the domination of space. With respect to the social, this tension must be negotiated and this negotiation occurs through the politics of space.




            For Harvey (1989), space is a fact of the natural. In other words, space is malleable; it can be exploited, dominated, and controlled: the essence of capitalism. Since space is a fact of the natural, the ordering of space “became an integral part of the modernizing project” (Harvey, 1989 p. 249). With this modernizing project, institutions, in addition to the nuclear family, were also constructed. With the rise of private and public property within the social, there was also the creation of police and prison. These prisons, as highlighted earlier, housed those described as vagrants. However, legislation was soon enacted to specifically target women as a form of social control. In London, UK, the Vagrancy Act of 1822 was enacted and listed prostitutes as those who could be arrested (Agustin, 2007). In Canada, the Indian Act was enacted in 1867 and various sections relating to prostitution were added which allowed the policing of Indigenous sexualities in the private sphere (under common bawdy house law) to occur (Sayers, 2013). The social construction of the prostitute produced the need to create these institutions and these pieces of legislation. The legislation legitimized the need for these institutions and the institutions produced the need for legislation. In other words, the institutions and legislation became hegemonic. Thus, the construction of the prostitute in the social is then seen as a desire to produce certain types of spaces by policing certain identities within those spaces.

Harvey, in response to Lefebvre’s conceptualization of the production of space, presents another dilemma. He states that the production of space is “a political and economic phenomenon” (p. 255). The political and economic phenomenon tied to the production of space is a result of capitalism, and its social relations that helped sustain its modes of productions. These social relations gave rise to the politics of space, including the social and power relations. Harvey (1989) writes, “There can be no politics of space independent of social relations. The latter give the former their social content and meaning” (p. 257). When certain types of social relations are privileged over others, and certain identities are excluded from the social, then it implies that there exist power relations within the social. These power relations then reproduce the social in a certain manner that produces certain types of spaces. However, for Lefebvre, social space is a social relation, a relation of property. Lefebvre (2009a) writes, “Space is permeated with social relations; it is not only supported by social relations, but it is also producing and produced by social relations” (p. 186). The social soon was supported by the creation of the private and public spheres, along with the normalization of the nuclear family within these spheres. With the rise of the social problem of the prostitute, the antithesis of the nuclear family, the prostitute had to be policed. The prostitute, and others as surplus populations within capitalistic societies, legitimized the need for institutions and their corresponding policies. The politics of space is supported by the politics of these social relations.  

For Lefebvre (2009b), he argues that space has a history, and that this history is “linked to that of modes of production” (p. 217). He further argues that a mode of production, like capitalism, is only “affirmed if it has given rise to a space” (Lefebvre, 2009b, p. 217). Capitalism, as a mode of production, gave rise to a specific space to be dominated and controlled. Capitalism, giving rise to space, sought to produce and reproduce certain types of social relations. As these social relations were produced and reproduced, they sought to normalize specific institutions. Lefebvre (2009b) also sees space as a political instrument, where the state uses space to ensure that it controls spaces, and its hierarchies.  For the state, controlling and dominating of space is reinforced through its institutions, police, prison, and the nuclear family. Lefebvre (2009b) writes, “The fact that, once we seek to define it, each institution refers back to something else, does not mean that these institutions have no autonomous existence. On the contrary. Each administration fights to preserve in being, to affirm, and perfect itself and to gain more reality” (p. 220). These institutions, police, prisons, and nuclear families, always refer to back to something, namely the state, and the state refer back to the control of the social, namely its space.


            With the above in mind, the statement, ‘there is a time and place for everything’, is more than just common sense. Statements such as this one repeatedly mentioned by Harvey serve to reinforce social and power relations. These statements also suggest that the spaces and the social need to be policed, along with identities that do not fit, in relation to both time and place. With the rise of the nuclear family as a type of social relation and space as a social relation, the state uses these social relations to ensure that it controls spaces and its hierarchies, with the prostituted women at the bottom of the hierarchy. The prostituted woman is seen as someone who is victimized, exploited, and does not enter into the trade any sort of agency (Farley, 2004). The social created the social problem of the prostitute to control surplus populations in capitalistic societies in order to police the social spaces it created. When the social position of the prostitute was reduced from one that was respected to one that needed to be criminalized, Agustin (2007) highlights that the social “invented not only its objects but the necessity to do something about them, and thereby its own need to exist” (p. 107). Similar to the state and with each administration, the construction of the prostitute as a social problem by lawmakers fought to preserve its reduced position, to affirm itself and give it more reality.


            Today, as described in the introduction, street-based sex workers only make up 5-20% of the total sex worker population. Unfortunately, they also account for 95% of the charges laid under, what is commonly referred to as, the communication law. This communication law has a legislative objective to restrict the street-based sex work as a social nuisance, much like the vagrants of in earlier centuries. Much of the public responses to street-based sex work has been further stigmatizing and can be characterised as “Not in my backyard” (NIMBY) responses. Some of the responses have reproduced the hegemonic discourses that street-based sex work is not a legitimate form of employment. The stigmatization that street-based sex workers experience is due to these hegemonic discourses, and common sense statements like, ‘there is a time and a place for everything’. Hence, the hegemonic discourses sanction the violence that street-based sex workers experience. These discourses say that what they are doing is illicit, and the violence that they experience, sometimes including death, is part of their own fault. In other words, they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and what they were doing, they should not have been doing in the first place. However, through suppressing or stigmatizing this occupational group, visibility and vulnerability is increased. Even in Canada, if one works indoors, the only non-criminal way for a sex worker to conduct business is to go the residence of the client, which increases his/her risk to experience violence (POWER, 2012). If a particular region would like to achieve more conformity or have these workers fit better into these spaces, their safety and livelihood should not be politically disenfranchised; rather, spaces should be deconstructed to provide them the personhood to work safely and autonomously. When the binary is created between persons/non-persons in space then the problems relating to Gieryn’s question become more critical.


            When a discussion of the decriminalization of sex work occurs, these hegemonic discourses and NIMBY responses tend to dominate. Yet, in relation to Gieryn’s question, “how do geographic locations, material forms, and the cultural conjuring of them intersect with social practices and structures, norms and values, power and inequality, difference and distinction?”, these responses serve to produce and reproduce the social spaces as political spaces. When social spaces are reproduced as political spaces, the power relations that dominate and control these spaces suggest that only certain social practices and structures, and specific norms and values matter. Then, these social practices and structures, and norms and values imply that only certain types of identities and beings matter. Thus, there is a call for a decriminalization of the trade, both indoors and outdoors to reduce the stigmatization that sex workers, especially street-based sex workers, experience.

            The decriminalization of the sex trade is a type of social reform. From being socially controlled, the street-based sex worker moves from being supressed and stigmatized to socially accepted. The decriminalization of the trade means that all criminal acts that exist in the criminal code relating to the sex trade are removed. With this, many people are concerned that there will be an increase in sex workers and thus, an increase in exploitation of women and girls. However, most exploitation occurs within the context of institutional violence (POWER, 2012; Pheterson, 1989). Further, the criminality of the trade has not prevented women and girls from entering sex work. Suddenly decriminalizing the trade will not miraculously entice all women and girls to resort to sex work as a form of employment. Also, due to the stigmatization that street-based sex workers experience, many also experience violence from individuals who prey on them due to their reduced status in social spaces. For instance, Robert Pickton targeted street-based sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (Oppal, 2012). The inquiry that resulted from Robert Pickton’s murders even called for an analysis into the effects of criminalization of the trade (Oppal, 2012). Another argument against the decriminalization of the sex trade is that it will increase the instances of human trafficking, or sexual slavery. However, this argument completely ignores the fact that human trafficking normally involves domestic wage labour and that slavery is a form of wageless labour. While sex work is consensual sex between two adults, human trafficking does not involve consent. Conflating one human rights issue with another issue does an injustice to both issues. Is there a time and place for everything? There is a time and place for street-based sex workers to experience the safety and security that others enjoy in social spaces. That time and place is here and now.


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