On sex work

Everyone knows that sex work is not going to go away. In Canada and much of the world, sex work is also a very good way to get yourself badly hurt, or worse. Most people find one or both of these facts to be a problem. So what are we as a society going to do about it?

Britain is considering moving from laws like Canada’s, which see sex work as an immoral activity for which sex workers should be punished, to the system adopted in Sweden in 1999, which sees sex work as a form of exploitation and a barrier to gender equality. Instead of making the sale of sex illegal, Sweden criminalizes its purchase, and goes after clients. This has greatly reduced street level sex work, which everyone agrees is the most dangerous for sex workers, and pushed the trade into rented apartments advertised on the internet which tend to get shut down after a few months of covert surveillance. Importantly, the number of trafficked women brought in and held against their will as sex workers is far lower than in neighbouring countries. Hundreds of fines of up to $12,000 CAD have been handed out, although clients typically re-offend regardless.

Overall, the system seems to work better than ours. In Montreal, a sex worker advocacy organization publishes widely-read monthly listings of bad clients to help keep their sisters safe. The Toronto police tell sex workers that they can report bad tricks without facing any charges themselves. And perhaps most chillingly, the Edmonton police have started collecting DNA samples from sex workers which are to be used only to identify bodies. This is clearly not an acceptable situation.

Ideally, sex work ought to be decriminalized and regulated. This is the position of the Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), and the goal of their constitutional challenge. They’ve clearly decided that politicians can’t be relied upon to undertake legal reform, and like same-sex marriage advocates before them, have turned to the courts. I wish them luck, and I suspect they’ll need it.

Unfortunately, this is a controversial stance due to the vestigial religious morals of our society, as expressed in our criminal code. The Swedish laws strike me as an interesting compromise, avoiding what both the SPOC and Conservative party voters would see as the worst failings of the other’s preferred system. It would allow us to move from defining sex workers as “women of ill repute tempting upstanding men into sin”, to “unfortunate victims of male hegemony”, and while this is admittedly several steps removed from “self-employed professionals with dignity and agency”, it strikes me as politically feasible. So is it an improvement on the status quo? I think so. Would it reduce the number of people in Canada working as sex workers against their will? I believe it would. It’s worth trying, and we certainly ought to try something.