sex work

The Bedford Decision: Deconstructing the Debate Around Selling Sex

Photo of Supreme Court of Canada buildingby Arwen McKechnie

Good news! Or at least, interesting news for Canadian law and social policy. Just in time for Christmas, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled unanimously that the current legislation on prostitution related offences are unconstitutional.

The ruling is suspended for one year, so that the federal government can amend the legislation that has been struck down. Knowing our government, they will do their utmost to find a way around the Supreme Court’s ruling, so for the next year the future of sex work in Canada will be in limbo.

But even with the delay and the inevitable attempts by the government to continue to endanger sex workers[1] under the guise of maintaining law and order, this is a very big deal.

You can read an excellent analysis of the Justices’ decision and the way it avoids dealing with the intersectional issues of race and class here, but rather than talking about the ruling itself, I think the debate around abolition vs. decriminalization/legalization is worth looking at in greater depth. People and groups on both sides of the debate claim that they’re working for the best interests of the women involved (yes, there are men working in the sex trade and this legislation affects them too, but this is still primarily a situation in which the primary providers of sex are women, and the primary consumers are men).

So given that this is an issue of women’s safety and women’s rights, and most everyone involved in the debate wants to promote both, how can they have such differing opinions on how to get there?

For those just introducing themselves to this issue, the discussion is largely polarized between those who support abolition and those pushing for decriminalization and/or legalization. Read more

Posted on by Arwen McKechnie in Can-Con, Feminism, Politics 1 Comment

Race, Security and Choice: The Bedford Decision Explored

Gavel and justice scalesby Arij Riahi

The Bedford decision released last Friday has already resulted in a great volume of commentary. This (long) post aims to break down the ruling to facilitate further discussion. I also wish to highlight some points of concerns about the unanimous decision that seem important to any feminist conversation on the topic. They center on the question of whether prostitution is a real choice and the realities of indigenous women and women of colour in the sex trade.

Three articles down. Right to security up.

The decision declares three articles of the Criminal Code to be invalid because inconsistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They are sections 210, 212(1)j) and 213(1)c) of the Criminal Code.

Specifically, the articles are said to be contrary to section 7 of the charter, which guarantees the right to security – a “fundamental freedom”- to every person.

The arguments brought by the applicants (Terri Jean Bedford et al.) are centred around the idea that the current laws violate the charter by preventing prostitutes from implementing safety measures (hiring body guards, for example) that could protect them from violent clients. The Supreme Court of Canada agreed with this argument.

It is important to mention here that the court has to answer the arguments brought by the applicants. The judges cannot get creative; they cannot decide to consider other arguments and ignore those submitted in front of them. This is why the decision is centered around the safety measures that prostitutes could set up to increase their own security.

The court started its decision by repeating that prostitution is not illegal in Canada. The act of exchanging sex for money is not a criminal infraction. Therefore, the ruling only considers if the current criminal legislation related to prostitution – which are sections 210, 212(1)j) and 213(1)c) of the Criminal Code -  violate the charter. I’ll consider the content of those articles and highlight the crux of the court’s arguments for each. Read more

Posted on by Arij Riahi in Can-Con, Feminism, Politics 2 Comments

GF Reads: How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir by Amber Dawn

poetrysavedby Alicia Costa

I first stumbled on Amber Dawn a few years ago when I by chance picked up her first novel Sub Rosa (2010) at the local library. It’s a fantasy based on a band of magical prostitutes in an alternate universe. It was one of those books that have stayed with me: one of the most stunning pieces of writing I’ve ever read. After I finished Sub Rosa I scoured the Internet looking for more of Dawn’s writing.  And while I tumbled on a few short pieces I was unable to find anything else because, shockingly enough to me, it was her first book.

Last week a friend invited me to the launch of Amber Dawn’s newest book, a memoir entitled, How Poetry Saved my Life: a Hustler’s Memoir (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013). Lucky enough for me my friend actually knows Amber Dawn and introduced me to her. And while I wanted desperately to say something witty and charming all I managed was a strangled, “I’m a big fan” (oh I’m soooo smooth).

In interviews after Sub Rosa was released Amber Dawn was very forthcoming that most of the fictional story was based on actual events from her time as a sex trade worker. It’s a large part of her identity and How Poetry Saved My Life takes the reading through her experience and her identity as a queer, feminist, sex worker, and a survivor.  For me the underlying message of the whole book was the importance for women to share their stories, especially those of trail and survival as a way to heal and help others.

In the introduction Dawn writes:

 “I am extremely grateful to the young woman I once was had the tenacity to write shit down” (p.15)

Separated into three sections – Outside, Inside, and Inward – the prose and poetry revolves around Dawn’s sex work as a youth at street level, “safer” indoor sex work, and the personal journey of reflection she has taken in the past three years.

And while Dawn uses some powerful and vivid anecdotes of her time in the sex trade it does not come off as voyeuristic. Rather they are used (as uncomfortable and disturbing as some are) to rise up Dawn’s powerful voice and make her experience heard.

 “The story you are reading right now is not about how I exited the sex trade- it is the one I recount to remind myself that I survived and that the worth of my life can be paid back with the truth of my stories” (p.118)

The most powerful piece for me was with Dawn’s struggle to reconcile all of her selves (sex worker/lesbian/writer/feminist/femme). It’s something that many feminists find themselves facing. And how for many of us we make our own feminism in our communities.

“I realize that this is the place that I discovered a kind of ghetto feminism, a street social justice. This is the place where I understand the impact my actions have. Where I trust myself; where I do not question my voice or the voices of other women here. This corner, where I wait for Coco, is the one space where I have learned and shared the most influential tools of my life- listen, witness, pass information forward, be at the ready, and survive. Survival may be the most radical thing I do.” (“Ghetto Feminism”, p. 54).

How Poetry Saved My Life is an exquisite piece of work. It reaffirmed to me why I’ll never stop advocating for women to use their voices. And too write their lives down, especially the painful parts, and share those stories with others. And why I need to be brave in my own work with my own voice.

Posted on by Alicia Costa in Books, Can-Con, Feminism Leave a comment

Social Justice and Strip Clubs: Are They Really Mutually Exclusive?

3965386394_11438bb510by Jasmine Peterson

A class of Social Justice 12 students at Charles Best Secondary in Coquitlam have, as a final project for their class, taken it upon themselves to confront a social issue in their area – they are petitioning for the closure of the Paramount strip club in New Westminster. I think it’s admirable that these students are engaged and moved to action, but I think that these students have not been given a fully nuanced picture of the issue.

I really must emphasize my appreciation that youth are actively seeking to make changes in their communities. Engagement with social and political issues in adolescents is a wonderful thing. I appreciate that their teacher has inspired them to think critically about social issues and is providing them with the skills and knowledge to actively address the things in the world around them that they are passionate about.

However, while I think they are coming from a genuinely concerned place, these students’ efforts seem to me to be somewhat misguided. One of the students, Ryan Leppert, stated:

“Men can go in there and treat women as objects and it isn’t fair to them. We don’t believe it is [their choice], we believe it is a desperate attempt to get money or a lot of them have been forced into it.”

And this is true. For some women, many women even, economic position forces them into vocations they might not otherwise choose. But at the same time there are many women who choose to dance or strip with a level of agency. Any vocation can be something that a person is forced into out of economic desperation (I know I don’t continue working at a call centre for my love of being yelled at, called names, and hung up on), so the conversation is much more nuanced than whether or not women are dancing for the financial benefit. Read more

Posted on by Jasmine Peterson in Can-Con, Feminism 5 Comments

Supreme Court to Hear Appeal in Bedford Case on Sex Work Laws

Gavel and justice scalesby Tash Wolfe

Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada announced that it will hear the appeal in the Bedford case, which deals with the laws surrounding sex work.

From the National Post:

“The court announced Thursday morning it will hear the federal government’s appeal of a landmark lower-court ruling last March that said some of the country’s anti-prostitution rules placed unconstitutional restrictions on prostitutes’ ability to protect themselves. The Attorney General of Canada’s application for leave to appeal was granted without costs. The court will also hear a cross-appeal by three former and current sex workers that allows them to argue that the rest of the prostitution laws they had challenged are also unconstitutional.”

This decision will allow the Bedford case to be heard before Canada’s highest court. According to Katrina Pacey, litigation director for Pivot Legal Society, this case involves “fundamental rights for sex workers to safety and freedom from criminalization, which we feel is one of the most important and pressing social justice issues of our time.” Pivot Legal Society will be joining together with PACE and Sex Workers United Against Violence Society to form a coalition and apply for intervenor status:

“Our purpose at the Court of Appeal was to bring a strong voice from the Downtown Eastside, making it very clear that for sex workers in this community, law reform is a matter of life and death. The laws are a major impediment to creating safety for many sex workers who face horrific violence while working on the street.” Read more

Posted on by Tash Wolfe in Can-Con, Feminism, Politics Leave a comment

Vancouver Sex Workers Granted Public Interest Standing

pivot swuavby Tash Wolfe

Late last week, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled and granted public interest standing for Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) and Sheryl Kiselbach to challenge laws related to adult prostitution.

Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) is an organization run by and for street-based sex workers in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, BC. The group was formed in 2007 as a way to address the violence and marginalization in the DTES community and to work towards challenging Canada’s prostitution laws.

Sheryl Kiselbach, a former sex worker with 30 years of experience who now works with street-based sex workers, joined the group in this important challenge. They filed a constitutional challenge to Canada’s criminal code, which was stopped by the federal government who brought in a motion preventing the case from going to trial. At this time, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the group did not have standing since they had not been charged with a prostitution-related offence. This decision was reversed by the

B.C. Court of Appeal and appealed by the federal government to the Supreme Court of Canada on January 19th, 2012.

“This decision opens the door for new, safe, and better ways for marginalized people to bring human-rights claims to court in a way that protects them and makes this kind of litigation more realistic,” said Katrina Pacey, litigation director for Pivot Legal Society and counsel for Kiselbach and SWUAV. “Specifically for our clients who work in street-based sex work, they are women who struggle with violence. They struggle with dire poverty, with addiction, with homelessness… They’re not looking for their clients to be criminalized either. They’re looking for consenting adults to be permitted to engage in consensual sex, and for the police to protect them when they ask for it instead of judging or punishing anyone in the industry just for the sake of being in the industry.”

As feminists, it is important to acknowledge the ongoing conflict between and within “waves” and womens’ groups around sex work and to strongly advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution. Read more

Posted on by Tash Wolfe in Can-Con, Feminism 3 Comments

Gender Focus Panel: Bedford Decision on Prostitution

Gavel and justice scalesEarlier this week the Ontario Court of Appeal handed down a decision in the Bedford case, which deals with the laws surrounding sex work.

From the CBC:

The court released a decision Monday on an appeal of Superior Court Judge Susan G. Himel’s high-profile ruling that three provisions of the Criminal Code pertaining to prostitution should be struck down on the grounds that they are unconstitutional.

The Ontario appeal court agreed with two-thirds of Himel’s ruling, namely that the provisions prohibiting common bawdy-houses and living off the avails of prostitution, are both unconstitutional in their current form.

But the court disagreed that the communicating provision must be struck down, meaning that it “remains in full force” and the existing ban on soliciting will continue.

[...]

The court also said that the prohibition of living off the avails of prostitution – as spelled out in Section 212(1)(j) of the Criminal Code – should pertain only to those who do so “in circumstances of exploitation,” and will be amended to reflect that. The changes to the “living-off-the-avails” provision will not come into effect for 30 days.

After the jump we’ll go to responses from Gender Focus contributors, but first here were some responses from other media and feminist organizations (only excerpts: click on links to read their entire reactions):

From WAVAW’s Media Release:

“Once again the legal system is missing the mark on prostitution. Women will continue to go missing and be murdered, if there is no real work being done to aid women. Social programming and funding into women’s services are what is needed. Hiding women from plain sight to create a false sense of safety in community is not the answer. The women who are engaging in sex work are not the individuals creating the violence; it is the men who seek to exploit women’s bodies. Those men come from the very neighborhoods that these judges say they wish to create safety in; they plan on doing this by eliminating the undesirable social consequences of sex work. The undesirable consequences are that men are able to exploit marginalized, at-risk women in Canada” says Darla Goodwin, WAVAW Rape Crisis Centre Coordinator of Aboriginal Women’s Services.

From Pivot Legal Society via Rabble.ca:

“I am very concerned about the continued criminalization of women working on the street. These are the women who face the most charges, face the most violence and have the fewest options” says Pivot Board Member Kerry Porth. “But I am glad to see that the Court recognized that these laws were not put in place to prevent prostitution and that the current legislative scheme does not reflect the values of dignity and equality for sex workers.”

From Laura Johnston at The F Word Feminist Media Collective:

The other strange part about this conclusion is that the Court acknowledged that the evidence demonstrated that women prostituted on the street do not move indoors, even if it’s legal. The record from other countries that legalized brothels showed that there was no movement from the street to brothels following decriminalization. There are many reasons for this. An obvious one is that brothels won’t let women in who struggle with mental illness, addiction, or have other health problems. Another is that many women prefer prostituting on the street because they have more control than in a brothel where the manager negotiates with johns on their behalf.

Now here’s what Gender Focus contributors had to say: Read more

Posted on by Jarrah Hodge in Can-Con, Feminism Leave a comment