The following is my submissions to the UN Women’s consultation on sex work, sex trade or prostitution. The deadline was allegedly extended to October 31, 2016. I make these submissions relying on this extended deadline date.
Submissions to UN Women’s Consultation on Sex Work, Sex Trade or Prostitution.
I am writing to provide recommendations, as an individual, to the consultation seeking views on the UN Women approach to sex work, sex trade and prostitution. I am frequently consulted by municipal, regional, national and international organizations on prostitution law reform initiatives. Also, I write as an Anishnaabe-kwe/First Nations woman with lived experience in the sex trade.
At the outset, I hold the perspective that sex work is work, entails many different kinds of labour, and acts as an umbrella term to include non-criminalized forms of work (i.e., web-camming, pornography, etc). Accordingly, these submissions focus on criminalized sexual labour and criminalized sexual exchanges, like prostitution, which is often conflated with human trafficking. I acknowledge there are international obligations to end human trafficking but assert that any fight to end human trafficking should not come with the risk of increased criminalization, police surveillance, police intimidation and other forms of state or institutional violence. To embody these perspectives, I use the term prostitution in my submissions.
My submissions address the following three questions:
- The 2030 Agenda commits to universality, human rights and leaving nobody behind. How do you interpret these principles in relation to sex work/trade or prostitution?
- The Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) set out to achieve gender equality and to empower all women and girls. The SDGs also include several targets pertinent to women’s empowerment, such as:
- reproductive rights,
- women’s ownership of land and assets,
- building peaceful and inclusive societies,
- ending the trafficking of women, and
- eliminating violence against women.
How do you suggest that policies on sex work/trade/prostitution promote such targets and objectives?
- The sex trade is gendered. How best can we protect women in the trade from harm, violence, stigma and discrimination?
1. The 2030 Agenda commitments need to centre the experiences of people in prostitution.
The principles of universality, human rights and leaving no person behind must centre the experiences of people in prostitution, including young people, Indigenous and other marginalized people. Explicitly, consultations must adopt the principles it espouses and seek to include the people who are most often left behind.
In far too many discussions relating to prostitution, young people, Indigenous and other marginalized people are ignored and silenced. Sometimes these discussions or consultations inform policies adopted by states. However, these subsequent policies rarely seek input from these groups and such consultations fail to assess the impacts of policies on these groups. Following such consultations, the policies adopted to regulate prostitution have the aim to protect such marginalized groups while simultaneously erasing experiences of those most impacted.
To truly commit to these principles, the 2030 Agenda must not ignore and silence these essential voices or experiences. Ignoring and silencing of these essential voices and experiences would only serve to undermine the 2030 Agenda’s commitment to universality, human rights and most importantly, leaving no person behind
2. Any policy must adopt a decolonial lens to promote the SDG targets and objectives.
The SDGs are a good starting point for a discussion on the best ways to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. However, the framing of this particular question is problematic because it only addresses women and presumably, the term “women” only includes adult, feminine presenting persons. I recommend to expanding the question to include a range of experiences, including experiences of young women and girls. As a corollary of this recommendation, I also recommend that you respect the privacy and safety of young people. The knowledge young people carry is invaluable. Unfortunately, it is often this knowledge that is devalued or often exploited at young people’s expense. For example, policies that aim to protect and save young people often come with harmful effects like increasing criminalization.
Nevertheless, empowerment narratives tend to essentialize women’s roles through hetero-patriarchal gender binary roles (i.e., women are only mothers or daughters). Empowerment narratives are usually adopted to stigmatize and romanticize women’s roles, especially Indigenous women’s roles. As such, additional discussions about what empowerment entails and what that looks like for women in the sex trade needs to take place. I also recommend the consultation define the term “empowerment.”
Regarding each of the named SDG targets, I recommend adopting a decolonial lens to address the ongoing colonization and criminalization of feminine and feminine-presenting bodies and sexualities. While many organizations adopt an anti-violence lens, this lens ignores ongoing colonization and often advocates for more criminalization. Some organizations and persons also adopt an anti-colonial lens. Yet, anti-colonial does not always mean anti-violence or decolonial. A decolonial lens will highlight the historical and ongoing violent treatment of feminine and feminine-presenting bodies and sexualities through ongoing colonization and criminalization.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) will assist with this decolonial focus. In particular, Article 19 states,
States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.
Article 19 emphasizes consultation in good faith through representative organizations. Sometimes consultation with only well-known organizations or institutions occur, especially in circumstances involving Indigenous women and girls. I recommend, however, that all consultation efforts undertake to meaningful consult in good faith with various kinds of organizations or institutions that ultimately work with, or represent, Indigenous women and girls, as opposed to just the most accessible and well-known.
Regarding policy on prostitution that promotes SDGs targets and objectives, I recommend that all policies adopt the principle of free, prior and informed consent through a decolonial lens. I recommend that policies refrain from increasing policing powers and re-enforcing the harms of criminalization. Such harms of criminalization include displacement, surveillance or racism, to name a few
3. Any initiative must interrogate the term protection.
Similar to the second consultation question, the third consultation question focuses solely on women, and completely erases the experiences of young women and girls. This particular question also uses the term “protect” to address the experiences of women in the sex trade. In discussions surrounding prostitution and women, protection tends to mean increasing criminalization. Protection also tends to focus on protection of children, as opposed to women, and the focus on protection of children leads to increasing criminalization of women. Accordingly, women do not benefit from similar and related policies.
To address this question, I recommend that the focus address women’s experiences as both gendered and racialized, especially those experiences of young, Indigenous and other marginalized people. Many organizations view prostitution as inherently violent and advocate for the criminalization of prostitution under the guise of protection of women. Unfortunately, these perspectives ignore how protectionist policies impact the lives of young, Indigenous and other marginalized women.
In the end, criminalizing any aspect of prostitution in an effort to end human trafficking, abolish slavery or protect women and children is nothing new. In fact, I see efforts to end human trafficking, abolish slavery or protect women and children through increasing criminalization and state surveillance as racist and anti-immigrant. It is young, Indigenous and other marginalized identities that bear the consequences of such policies, including but not limited to deportation and criminalization. The time is now that institutions engage in meaningful consultations that centre the experiences of persons who are most impacted by such policies following these consultations.
 For instance, Amnesty International’s policy to support decriminalization of sex work only supports decriminalization of adult sex workers. See especially Naomi Sayers, “Watch who is silent on the issue of continued criminalization of young people under the guise of protection and safety” (21 June 2016) Kwe Today (blog), online: https://kwetoday.com/2016/06/21/watch-who-is-silent-on-the-issue-of-the-continued-criminalization-of-young-people-under-the-guise-protection-and-safety/.
 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 19, online: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf.
 Naomi Sayers, “Canada’s Anti-Prostitution Laws: A Method for Social Control” (28 December 2013) Kwe Today (blog), online: https://kwetoday.com/2013/12/28/canadas-anti-prostitution-laws-a-method-for-social-control/; see also Naomi Sayers, “Doing/Undoing Justice: Violence Through Colonial Law” (06 July 2016) Kwe Today (blog), online: https://kwetoday.com/2016/07/06/doingundoing-justice-violence-through-colonial-law/.