I wanted to write this post for a long time. Okay, I lied…only since a couple of weeks ago did I think about writing something like this, and with good reason.
Since December 20, 2013, which marks the date the Supreme Court Decision released its decision regarding Bedford v. Canada, the discussion regarding sex work has intensified from both supporters and opposing parties (without surprise). Around the end of last month (and beginning of this month), there was a leaked document from Amnesty International, which has supported the call for the decriminalization of the industry. Following this leak of Amnesty’s report, the opposition from anti-sex work organizations has escalated. This isn’t the first international organization to support the decriminalization of the trade either. Within Canada, it has intensified to the point that organizations and supporters of the criminalization of sex work have even started a national postcard campaign. Those who do not support the decriminalization of the trade (antis for short) are beginning to call prostitution (sex work) as a form of violence against women, including Indigenous women and girls (which is ultimately attempting to include Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls or MMWIG)–not that this is anything new.
Throughout the antis’ opposing the decriminalization of the trade, it becomes even clearer that the antis have not even taken time to read Amnesty’s leaked document. You can read that in detail here. This isn’t much of a surprise either since the antis tend not to read any of the current research that supports the decriminalization of the trade. The antis tend to only read and repeat the research that has been discredited by numerous institutions including the Ontario Court of Justice (you know, Farley et al).
When it comes to the leaked document by Amnesty International, you don’t even have to read the entire report to see that the antis didn’t pay much attention to what was actually said in the report. In fact, it becomes quite clear what the antis are supporting when it comes to protesting against sex work, and that is they are supporting the further marginalization of sex workers, specifically those sex workers who are marginalized in other ways (race, class, ability, gender, etc).
Amnesty International (AI) is quite clear that it supports the decriminalization of the trade between consenting adults. While I understand and appreciate that people of various demographies, including age, engage in sex work, I do not support the criminalization of the trade for anybody. When a behaviour or activity is criminalized, people tend to believe that it will increase the safety and security of individuals who engage in these activities. However, this is the furthest from the truth. Specifically, the criminalization of the trade allows the state to monitor and control certain types of activities. Yet it is the activities of those most marginalized, including activities that youth engage in, that are most often criminalized (even if it is not directly related to the trade) and when they are criminalized, this increases their risk for more stigmatization, discrimination and further limits their access to certain services and opportunities. The idea that a youth’s criminal record is expunged at the age of 18 is a myth. The argument that Canada needs to adopt a model like the Nordic Model to prevent harms is another myth.
Let’s have a real discussion about what constitutes violence against women, specifically Indigenous women and girls.
The reality is that the majority of the harm that Indigenous women and girls experience is directly related to the state, including policing agencies and the justice system, and these types of violence include the criminalization of the trade (including the buying and selling of sexual services). While some individuals admit to entering prostitution with constrained choices, these choices should not be negated. Arguing that one does not have a choice negates their very existence, their humanity, and their self, their being. By not viewing individuals as beings who are capable of making choices negates their existence, and only certain bodies are placed into these categories, explicitly Indigenous women and girls.
This type of logic also completely ignores the history of violence against Indigenous women and girls and the type of violence that contributes to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). Although one might argue that saying that Indigenous women and girls are capable of making choices and that this logic follows that Indigenous women and girls deserve what they got (the same type of logic used within dominant discourses/institutions, including policing agencies), this is not the argument I am trying to highlight. What I am pointing out is that Indigenous women and girls agency (or more appropriately, lack of agency) is only useful when it comes to colonial gains, including those gains such as maintaining the prison industrial complex, non-profit industrial complex, and state control over Indigenous sexuality/sexual behaviours. Additionally, when the state of Indigenous women and girls are discussed, these narratives rarely ever include the history of colonialism and the colonial state as being a contributor and supporter of violence against Indigenous women and girls.
The argument that prostitution is violence against women also ignores the diversity within the trade, including those Indigenous peoples who identify as male, trans, or two-spirited. This argument also (obviously) conflates violence against women with prostitution. Because it sees all prostitutions as forms of violence against women and as such, usually advocates for the criminalization of the buyers. However, what this does is that it distracts from actual real violence against women. Violence against women is a unique situation that exists outside of prostitution and saying that all prostitution is violence against women assumes that all violence against women is prostitution. But we all know that (without this being highlighted) that all violence against women is not prostitution. Furthermore, there are already laws in place to deal with real violence against women, like the sections in the Criminal Code of Canada that deal directly with homicide, assault, sexual assault, harassment, etc. Saying that all prostitution is violence against women also negates that some women choose to enter prostitution and it assumes that the violence that they experience is entirely their own fault: they deserved what they got. More bluntly, those women should have known better because prostitution is violence against women, and who, in their right mind, would put themselves in a direct line to violence? A perfect example of anti-choice.
Logically, saying that prostitution is violence against women and saying that we must criminalize the buyers of the trade doesn’t make any sense. It says that one can advertise their services but they can’t AND shouldn’t get paid for their services. Again, an example of anti-choice. Keeping any aspect of the trade criminalized, including the buyers, negates one’s choices, which (as I stated earlier) negates one’s existence and very being. It also distracts from the real violence that both sex workers and non-sex workers may experience, including assault or sexual assault. When MMIWG are included in this discussion, it also ignores the fact that the some of those MMIWG were sex workers. It speaks to the tone that those who were sex workers deserved what they got. Also, when MMIWG are included in this discussion, it ignores that the criminalization of the trade (including the buyers and sellers—while it wasn’t illegal to exchange sexual services for money, it was illegal to do it certain spaces) contributed to their disappearances and murders. This is further complicated by the fact that policing agencies and our colonial governments continue to exhibit a complete lack of concern for MMIWG. Adding MORE laws that criminalize their behaviours isn’t a solution to this social issue. These arguments also pay no attention to the history of Indigenous women and girls in Canada—where the government was a contributor and a supporter to the violence that Indigenous women and girls experienced (and continue to experience). We must ask ourselves, how is the further criminalization of the trade (either buyers or sellers) going to address the violence of those within the trade?
In closing, I will call attention to the fact that when we ignore the history of violence against Indigenous women and girls, it is direct violence against Indigenous women and girls. So again, I say, let’s have a real discussion about what constitutes violence against women (especially Indigenous women and girls), and let’s discuss how certain experiences are erased from this discussion and how certain histories (and present experiences) are continuously dismissed as not being legitimate.
Note: please take your time to view this Amnesty International link (and read the leaked report in detail) and voice your concerns over the continued criminalization of the trade by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org if you are a not a member of Amnesty International (if you are a member, as per the site, “please engage with the consultation process directly with an office located in your country).