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Letter to my MP on sex work

2014 March 15

[Adapted from my responses to the Justice Department’s public consultation on the criminalization of sex work.]

Dear Mr. Mulcair,

I am writing, as one of your constituents, to encourage you to come out in support of the decriminalization of sex work. The continued criminalization of sex work in this country is but one of many ways in which our legal system does more to foster injustice than to fight it. The Bedford decision has provided us with an historic opportunity to set things right, and I urge you to contribute to this effort.

People engage in sex work for a variety of reasons; for those people who are forced into sex work or who choose it only out of desperation, there are much better solutions than wholesale criminalization of the work, which further endangers people. If it is disproportionately (but by no means exclusively) the more vulnerable members of our society who choose it, it is because sex work has been made dangerous and shameful by our society – and this need not be so. There is no morally defensible reason to treat the purchase of a sexual service as different from the purchase of any other physical labour a person might provide (factory work, farming, massage therapy, hospital orderly, etc). Sex is only different to the extent that it is more stigmatized than these other forms of work; criminalization adds to that stigma.

Sex workers do not need protected from their source of income (as in the abolitionist Nordic model). They may need to be protected from violence, but any form of criminalization of their work only impairs their ability to access that protection. Sex workers themselves, who actually live with the reality of the risks they face, have a much better idea of how to solve these problems than politicians do, if only we would listen to them.

This country has also criminalized anyone who economically benefits from sex work, but it should be obvious that sex workers have dependents (children, partners, families) who benefit economically from sex work. Sex workers need to rent apartments, so their landlords benefit economically from sex work. As with any business, sex workers may need to pay third parties for services related to their work (security, accountants, lawyers, etc): these people also benefit economically from sex work. “Economic benefit” is not inherently exploitative, as any free market economist could tell you, so to criminalize it is absurd and counterproductive. Exploitation does occur in the sex trade, to be sure but this is true of literally every sector of the economy, and we normally don’t try to shut down the whole economy to stop exploitation. Driving an economy underground only makes the situation worse.

Instead, standard labour law protections should be extended to sex workers, to the extent that sex workers themselves desire those protections. Existing Canadian laws against violence, exploitation, and so on can be used to deal with specific abuses. No further restrictions on sex work as such are necessary or desirable, as these only marginalize and restrict people’s options and expose them to greater risks. Sex workers and their allies have gone to great lengths to describe and document these risks. (POWER in Ottawa and Stella in Montreal are two excellent places to start, if you are curious.) Will we continue to ignore them?

There is a reason men like Willy Pickton go after sex workers: they know society doesn’t listen to sex workers, and doesn’t care about them. We need to change this. The Bedford decision is a ray of hope from a legal system that too often is used as a tool to oppress groups with which dominant society is uncomfortable. The government must take this opportunity to create a more humane society, and not simply find a more superficially palatable way to control and endanger the lives of consenting adults (as the Nordic model would do). Anyone who claims that sex work is inherently violent is out of touch with reality. There are countless brave, outspoken sex workers who are providing eloquent public testimony to the contrary. One might as well say that all sex is inherently violent, or that all paid labour is inherently violent. This line of reasoning comes from an outdated, narrow, ostensibly “feminist” view that assumes women find sex humiliating unless it is with a loving romantic partner. I hope we are moving beyond such damaging assumptions.

Sex workers, like all Canadians, deserve the right to work in safety and dignity; not only that, they deserve to be recognized for the valuable labour that they provide and the role they play in the Canadian economy. It is not these sex worker organizations who are “brainwashed” into thinking that their work is legitimate: it is dominant Canadian society that has been “brainwashed” to think that sex is bad and that only the desperate would ever choose to sell it, or that only vile predators would ever choose to buy it. These are cruel, harmful stereotypes which should have no place in determining public policy.

Decriminalization is the only option that respects people’s economic and bodily freedom – freedoms I would have hoped that all political parties might be able to respect. It is also the only option that will improve safety and therefore save lives. I therefore urge you, as my elected representative and as the leader of the Official Opposition, to take a public stance in support of the rights and dignity of all members of our society, and thus in support of decriminalization of the sex industry.

Thank you for your time.

[If you are interested in writing to your Member of Parliament and/or contributing to the government consultation, I encourage you to draw inspiration from the Call to Action put together by POWER, an Ottawa/Gatineau-area sex workers’ rights organization.]

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