Making the Sex Trade Safer: Is Decriminalization the Answer?

by | January 22, 2012
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

Gavel and justice scales

Very pleased to have Jasmine back for a second post at Gender Focus. Jasmine Peterson is currently a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at Lakehead University (Ontario), and a feminist activist. 

Prostitution is a cultural phenomenon that has been present in some form or another throughout history; it has often been referred to as ‘the world’s oldest profession’ which is not an accurate statement, but highlights the fact that sex work has been prevalent throughout the world for centuries.

In Canada, prostitution itself is a legal activity. However, many of the activities related to prostitution are illegal: operating or being found in a brothel or bawdy house, procuring sexual services, living on the avails of prostitution, or soliciting in a public space.

This is an issue for a number of reasons: it is difficult to engage in prostitution without breaking the law even though prostitution itself is legal, it contributes to and is a function of the cultural stigma against sex workers (which can also lead to street prostitutes being jailed more frequently than their clients), but most concerning is that these laws prohibit those who engage in sex work to communicate in a public space. This leaves workers more susceptible to the dangers of the industry (specifically violence and fear of legal reprisal for reporting such violence once it’s been committed).

A group of Vancouver sex workers – The Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society – have spent the past few years pitted against the federal government in legal proceedings. The case has made its way to the Supreme Court. What is really at the center of this legal battle is the safety of sex-trade workers. The sex-trade workers would like to see the activities associated with prostitution decriminalized as an integral step in ensuring their health, safety, and freedom of expression – basic human rights (read about it here).

The debate about decriminalizing activities surrounding prostitution is a rather divisive one, with some polarizing views. The problem, as I see it, is that there are two separate groups of sex-trade workers – those who work off-street (for example escort services), and those who are engaged in the on-street sex-trade.

The off-street sex workers are typically those with more stable living conditions, and are less likely to be prosecuted or stigmatized than their counterparts. The on-street sex-trade workers are often women and men who are homeless or living in poverty, suffering addiction or other mental health issues, and are at greater risk of serious acts of violence.

To add to this, they are often afraid to report abuse or violence they have been subjected to because they are frequently revictimized by the legal system for engaging in the criminalized activities of an otherwise legal profession.

One of the biggest concerns for many feminists who are opposed to the legalization of prostitution acts is that sex work is inherently coercive and exploitative, and that all sex work leaves those who engage in the trade vulnerable to violence.

It’s legitimate to consider the poverty, homelessness, addiction, and other struggles which affect many sex-trade workers as forms of coercion, yet this is the group of people most disadvantaged by current legislation, particularly the laws prohibiting communication.

Because communication in public is not legal, it forces sex workers to take their work underground, to accept clients after only very brief interchanges, which drastically increases the dangers associated with their work. Of course, it is hard to predict what the effects of decriminalizing all activities to do with prostitution might be. The laws that target pimping (i.e. procuring, living off the avails of prostitution) if eliminated, may leave sex-workers as much or more susceptible to trafficking or exploitation by pimps.

While it is definitely of concern that a number of those who get into the sex trade do so out of necessity because of their economic situation, our cultural discourses and consequent perceptions of the sex-trade seem to make it difficult, even impossible, for many of us to imagine that some people choose this type of work. But I think that it is as important that we do not negate it as a legitimate choice for many in the industry as it is that we protect those who are trafficked, coerced , or exploited by the industry.

Prostitution is not a new profession, yet society grants its members very little respect, subjecting them to stigma, violence, and prosecution. I sometimes wonder if the reason prostitution is regarded so poorly is because of the way we talk about women and women’s sexuality, the way we devalue women in our culture (I’m not suggesting that only women work in the sex trade; it is equally dangerous for males, transgendered individuals, homeless youth, etc.).

Whatever the reason, I see decriminalization of some of the activities surrounding prostitution as an inevitable progression in working toward making the sex trade safer, healthier, and providing sex workers greater autonomy. It is, however, just one step – we also need to address social issues that allow some to be coerced into the sex-trade, by providing accessible services for addiction, addressing homelessness and poverty, and reducing the stigma surrounding sex work.


(photo via Wikimedia Commons)

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