Dear Chris Hedges,
No. Just stop.
From an Indigenous woman
The long version?
Well, if you haven’t heard or read by now, there is apparently an article authored by a white dude by the name of Chris Hedges. I don’t even know who he is or what he is about. But his recent article on truthdig (ironic) tries to present a more “balanced” perspective on the prostitution debate or tries to add some “truth” to the discussion.
Let’s be clear here, the truth will differ depending on whom you talk to and that really just invalidates the whole point of his article. Of course if you talk to only people who believe all prostitution is exploitation, then well, you will obviously be presented with one picture. I won’t address the comments made by the people he interviewed because they are free to express their opinions based on their experiences.
His whole “truth-ing” article really doesn’t do any justice for those who do experience violence in the sex trade especially for Indigenous peoples and even for those who do experience violence who are not in the sex trade. Not all Indigenous women and girls who go missing or murdered are working the sex trade are they? Yet, we still have over 1000+ names in a database being controlled by a policing agency whose history is tied to the colonial agenda (you know, to get rid of the Indian problem).
In Hedges’ article, he tries to postulate that the fight to legalize sex work (also known as the “left”) is tied to neoliberalism and increasing capitalistic structures. He tries to argue that this fight to legalize sex work contributes to the further exploitation of women and girls in the trade. He then tries to suggest the new prostitution laws will help with ending this exploitation.
I will premise the rest of this post with the following: I am not saying that exploitation does not happen. Not at all. But we need to acknowledge that exploitation occurs in a variety of contexts and focusing on only one really does not do trafficking victims any justice. As the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women even notes that “End Demand” (aka the Swedish model or the Nordic model) does not actually reduce trafficking (which is the entire goal of End Demand), ignores trafficking into other sectors (which TIPS critiqued the Canadian government for), relies more on ideology than evidence, and increases stigma against sex workers which ultimately contributes to violence in their lives. You can see this recent 2015 report by the UNDP that calls for the decriminalization of sex work to address the HIV epidemic and to also address the violence that sex workers experience because of this stigma. Hedges even goes so far to highlight the plight of people in Vancouver’s DTES including the high rates of HIV. But he does not engage in a discussion as to why or how the DTES experiences such heightened marginalization in that area—you know things like colonialism which Hedges doesn’t even acknowledge in his “truth” paper. So, I ask, whose truth is really being advanced here? Because if we are actually concerned about exploitation of women through prostitution, something more has to be done because criminalizing their lives did not help before and it certainly will not help now or in the future.
Organizations like Butterfly, which is an Asian and migrant sex worker support network in Canada, delineates the harms with the criminalization of prostitution especially for Asian and migrant workers in their brief to the Senate for c-36 (the new prostitution laws). And similar to the UNDP 2015 report cited above, Butterfly outlines the fact that new laws would cause sex work to go “underground [and] further restrict and stigmatize all sex workers”, but this stigma would affect Asian and migrant female sex workers the most. To further emphasize this point, the UNDP report, who did research in four Asian countries, also concluded the same thing: increasing stigma, increases violence which negatively affects sex workers’ health, equity, dignity, safety and human rights.
If prostitution is exploitation and criminalization is supposed to end this exploitation, we don’t have to look too far to see the effects of criminalization and how it does not help end exploitation. In fact, if you take the time to read the Bedford decision, you can see that the previous laws, which the Supreme Court of Canada struck down as unconstitutional, aims were to also prevent exploitation (as well as public nuisance). Did exploitation of women in prostitution exist before the Bedford decision? Yes. Were these women criminalized before? Yes. Did the Bedford decision strike down all prostitution provisions in the Criminal Code? No. Do the new laws decriminalize them (as some tried to argue)? No.
So with all these others laws that Supreme Court of Canada did not touch, there are still plenty of other options for the police and colonial state to rely on in their fight to end exploitation of women (as if that is the entire goal of the police and colonial state anyways). In the end, the people who are concerned about the exploitation of women don’t really have anything to worry about: you still got your police and criminalization of their lives in other ways! It’s not like Indigenous women and girls don’t experience criminalization only through prostitution. I mean, did the Indigenous women federal prison population increase by 109% because of only prostitution related offences? No.
But really, both sides do agree on two things: we want the violence against women to stop and we do not want the exploitation of women to occur. Unfortunately, we disagree on options to get there.
The argument is often that prostitution is like slavery. You can see this argument premised in Hedges’ article. Yes, slavery happens and even sexual slavery happens. However, we must position this argument within an appropriate political, social and historical context to meaningfully engage in this argument.
An appropriate definition of slavery within a Canadian context must be applied. Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angelique offers a succinct and appropriate definition. She writes:
“A useful definition of slavery is the robbery of one’s freedom and labour by another, usually a more powerful person. Violence and coercion are used to carry out the theft and to keep the slave captive in the condition of bondage and servitude. This definition applies to slavery in Canada. Laws were enacted and institutions created to rob persons of their freedom and labour and keep them in perpetual servitude. In the earliest era of colonial rule in Canada, both Aboriginal people and Africans and their descendants were enslaved (Aboriginal slaves were colloquially termed ‘Panis’). From 1628 to 1833, slavery was a legal and acceptable institution in both French and British Canada and was vigorously practised.”
The initial reason our sweet and lovely MPs did not abolish slavery outright was because some of those same MPs also continued to own slaves. It wasn’t until much later that the abolishment of slavery did occur. In the first steps to abolish slavery, slaves became “free” if they met any of the requirements set out in the initial Act. One of the conditions was that the slave could be set free at the age of 25 years (the average life span of a Black slave was 25 years; it was 17 years for an Aboriginal slave). Today, you could potentially be sent to prison for “life” and life translates to 25 years—coincidence? It is argued elsewhere that the institution of slavery was never actually abolished; rather it was transferred from one institution to another: the prison. The fight to decriminalize sex work is connected to a larger movement that calls for the abolition of the prison system. We will not accept anything less. The prison system is a violent and colonial system.
The whole point of the “left” isn’t to try to argue that exploitation does not occur in prostitution. Rather, people who support the decriminalization of prostitution want to diversify the discussion. Not all prostitutes are exploited and not all exploited people are prostitutes. If the latter were false, then why are we only focused on prostitution? In that same breadth, if the former is false, then why are we not addressing the push factors into exploitation as opposed to just one effect (or in the alternative, cause) of exploitation? As you know, you smart people out there, simple logic shows that something cannot be both a cause and effect of exploitation of women. Let’s just lay bare the problem with Hedges’ entire argument: prostitution is both a cause and effect of women’s exploitation.
And if we focus on the bolded words in Cooper’s definition of slavery, “Laws were enacted and institutions created to rob persons of their freedom and labour and keep them in perpetual servitude” then through the criminalization of prostitution, we see that people who do enter into the trade out of “desperation” are robbed of their freedom and their labour, and kept in perpetual servitude, being forced to rely on minimum wage jobs for their “freedom” and “labour.” If we connect this definition of slavery to the history of the criminal (in)justice system including the Criminal Code, we also see that this institution, the prison industrial complex, was created to rob people of their freedom and labour. And who is most likely to get arrested in the DTES and elsewhere in Canada? Well it certainly isn’t people like Hedges. It’s the very same people his article claims to be providing more “truth” to their reality: the vulnerable and the exploited which also often are defined as young Indigenous women and girls.
Hedges goes on to conclude in his piece that does not acknowledge the truth in the reality of the women who have gone missing or murdered and who live in DTES. He outlines the reality that these women in the DTES “have been severely beaten, tortured or murdered or have disappeared.” To acknowledge the truth about this reality would mean we have to admit the fact that police played a role in these disappearances: they ignored their pleas for help and they failed to investigate (and continue to fail to investigate) their missing and murders (and not just in the DTES but across Canada) carelessly and thoughtlessly.
To quote Warren Goulding’s book title, just another dead Indian.
 Note: Hedges only discussed legalization of prostitution in his article, and not decriminalization which is the whole point of the “left.”
 See The Hanging of Angelique for a rich discussion on the history of slavery and its legislation in Canada.
 See Stephen Dillon, “Possessed by death: The neoliberal- carceral state, Black feminism, and the afterlife of slavery.”
 Whatever that means because I would call working a minimum wage job also working out of desperation with no “free” choice.