Don’t make life harder for sex workers—make it illegal to discriminate against them for employment and education

The Supreme Court of Canada has recently struck down the laws regarding prostitution, saying that they were putting sex workers in danger. The reasoning behind the court’s judgement was to make life easier and safer for a group that is often hated and is definitely vulnerable. Rather than heeding the clear spirit of the decision, some have taken this as an opportunity to find other ways to be cruel, judgemental and to try to bring about harm or make sex workers unwelcome in their communities.

The most repugnant part of all this is that many of those who most vehemently argue for tougher restrictions—laws to make life even harder for sex workers—these people do it out of a misguided sense of moral superiority. As if it weren’t hard enough to do sex work. As if there were something admirable about stacking the deck against them.

Due to the judgement, the government has one year to pass new legislation on the subject. In an uncharacteristically democratic move on the part of the Harper government, Ottawa has asked for public input on the subject.

Some (terrible) options that have been proposed

The Ministry of Justice website lists a few options for new legislation (see Table 1), one of which is prohibition. The government may decide to pass a law banning sex work in Canada. This will make it illegal to buy sex and to sell it. Under such a law, sex workers would become criminals.

I would like to point out the obvious. A law like this cannot make prostitution go away. This will only push sex workers further out to the margins of our society and reinforce a cycle of violence and exploitation against them. If you advocate for a position like this, you are not advocating for the non-existence of prostitution. You are just advocating for the destruction of the lives of a hated and vulnerable group of people. If you care about the well-being of others at all, you can’t endorse such a position.

Another option is “abolition,” or the so-called “Nordic model.” This would make the purchasing of sex illegal, but keep the selling of sex legal. Under this kind of a law, anyone who buys sex would be a criminal, but it would be perfectly legal for the sex workers to provide it.

Again, let’s not kid ourselves. A law cannot make prostitution go away. While this option will mercifully keep sex workers out of jail, it’s not exactly a huge step toward making life easier and safer for them, and it will keep them and their work at the margins of our society, away from the benefits and privileges of the mainstream, which the rest of us enjoy. If you can’t see how this kind of law can only continue to marginalise and generally perpetuate violence against sex workers, I don’t think I can explain it to you.

Here’s a better idea

Let’s imagine for a moment that we, as a society, were actually serious about helping sex workers. This is clearly the spirit of the Supreme Court decision, at least. If we wanted to help sex workers, and not just in the paternalistic “I’m helping them by giving them a good incentive to stop being a whore” sense of the word, we could use this opportunity to refine the law in such a way that it gives them some options. For example, we could make it really easy for people to get out of sex work.

Here’s my idea: Pass a law making it illegal in the context of education or employment to discriminate against a person on the basis of a past work history that includes sex work, stripping, porn acting, etc.

I’m not so naïve to think that this will suddenly end all the subtle ways in which a history of sex work can make it difficult for someone to get or keep a job, or to enrol in school or stay in school. But at the very least, we can eliminate the obvious ones. It’s kind of like how we have laws to say that you can’t reject job applications from gays, women or people of colour because they are gay, women or people of colour. It doesn’t eliminate homophobia, sexism, or racism, but I wouldn’t want to live in a country that didn’t have such laws.

Most of the people reading my blog are pretty privileged, so you may not understand this, but not everyone can afford not to be a sex worker (or a stripper or a porn actor). Why on earth should anyone have to worry about being expelled from her school or not being able to get a job later in life for doing what she has to do to make ends meet?

Not only that, but some people choose to do sex work, and not out of dire financial need, and it’s not the place of the government of Canada to enforce Christian sexual values on everyone who lives here. So if your major hang-up regarding the endorsement of something that isn’t a total ban on prostitution is religiously motivated, that is not a reason to make it into a law for everyone else. It may be a fine motivation for your own decisions and actions, but the enforcement of your private religious beliefs would be an abuse of the power of the state.

In the end, it comes down to what we think this law is supposed to do. Is our highest priority that we use the machinery of the state to punish those who deviate from Christian sexual norms, or is our highest priority that every single person in Canada (whether they share the same sexual morality or not) is safe, and has a fair shot at a good life?

The obvious objection—”won’t somebody please think of the children”

I can hear the obvious objection coming from the conservatives out there—why should we want to make like easier for prostitutes? If being a prostitute or a stripper or a porn actor isn’t something that will follow my daughter around for the rest of her life, what can I tell her to dissuade her from becoming a sex worker?

I have two answers to that.

First, that line isn’t what’s keeping people from going into sex work.

Second, if it is your daughter who ends up in sex work, you will want the government to help her get out of it, and a law against discriminating against her on the basis of her sex work history will help.

If you want us to “think about the children,” then let’s also spare some time to think about the children who end up as prostitutes too.

Table 1: The options for new prostitution legislation, according to the Ministry of Justice

Selling sex legal Selling sex illegal
Buying sex legal What we had in Canada up until the Supreme Court decision* Even the Tories knew better than to suggest this
Buying sex illegal The “Nordic model” or “abolition” “Prohibition” or the “American model”

* With some restrictions. E.g. “living off the avails” of prostitution was illegal.

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The Grey Literature

This is the personal blog of Benjamin Gregory Carlisle PhD. Queer; Academic; Queer academic. "I'm the research fairy, here to make your academic problems disappear!"

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