A couple of weeks ago, Emily and I worked with some women in our community who are part of a group of feminists called the Feminist League for Agitation Propaganda to write the following letter. Shout outs to Mary and Jordan for all their work on this great piece!
An open letter from feminists who support sex workers
As young feminists in Halifax committed to struggling against all forms of oppression, we stand in solidarity with sex workers. We proudly applaud Judge Himel’s ruling to decriminalize sex work, and would like to take this opportunity to comment on the press release sent out by Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle and The Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centers on Sept. 28, 2010. While we respect the work done by the women’s groups included in this press release, we would like to make it clear that not all feminists were “stupefied” and “angry” upon learning of this ruling.
We, as feminists, support all people who face systemic oppression. Women, men, and trans people who do sex work face oppression from the police state, the legal system and from those who see their work as immoral, illegal and illegitimate. Sex workers are workers. They may also experience other forms of oppression based on aspects of their identity, including race, sexual identity, gender presentation, class, dis/ability, and so on. In particular, Indigenous sex workers across Canada face extremely high rates of assault and murder.
The press release states that the decriminalization ruling is counter to work done to end violence against women. However, the atrocious violence committed against sex workers in Canada is common and widespread. Striking down the current law that makes it illegal for sex workers to communicate with and screen potentially dangerous clients in a public space or a relatively safe private space before getting into a car with them decreases the risk of assault against workers. The decriminalization of common bawdy houses allows sex workers to ensure their own safety by working together indoors. Striking down the law prohibiting bawdy houses also means sex workers can report violence to authorities without fear of arrest or eviction.
While the law against living off the avails of prostitution seems to target people who exploit the labour of sex workers, it also criminalizes sex workers’ non-work related relationships. This law hurts sex workers by stripping away the supportive networks of friends and family. It makes sex workers’ live-in partners, roommates, and even elderly parents susceptible to being charged for living off the avails. Striking down this law acknowledges that sex workers are people with families and loved ones who deserve to live a life free from the fear of arrest.
Like Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, who is quoted in the press release, we recognize the link between misogyny and racism, and the fact that Indigenous women are overrepresented in sex work and are often victims of violence. However, we do not believe, as Corbiere Lavell states, that the decriminalization of sex work is a negative development and will result in expanded trafficking.
It is not sex work in itself that is to blame for the shameful amount of violence committed against Indigenous women, but more so, we argue, the racist Canadian government, justice system, and police force. Police in Canada have a long and disgraceful history of failing to investigate the disappearances and murders of Indigenous women, particularly those who do sex work; people who seek to harm women are often well aware of this fact. As well, Indigenous women are grossly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. They are often targeted by racist police, and a higher proportion of Indigenous women than non-Indigenous women are made to serve their federal sentences in prison, rather than being released on bail or under supervision. We support the statement released by the Native Youth Sexual Health Network that this ruling could mean less violence for Indigenous people in Canada, as it promotes the safety of Indigenous sex workers, and would reduce the degree of police interference in Indigenous communities.
The press release states that the ruling “has failed to meet the equality needs of women across Canada” by decriminalizing “men[’s] right to the prostitution of women.” However, many feminists recognize that, while some women, men, trans people and children are trafficked or pushed into sex work against their will, or do survival sex work for lack of other options, there are also those who are able to choose this line of work and who experience agency and independence through their choice. Some women choose sex work because it is one of the sole employment opportunities available to them or one of the only work schedules that fits with their care provider responsibilities to children or other family members. We must continue to fight against the individuals and social forces that force women into sex work, while also recognizing and respecting sex workers’ agency.
Legal forces that criminalize and endanger sex workers persist, and differ from region to region. In Halifax, arrest and release procedures ban sex workers from returning to certain areas of the city after they have been arrested by police for breaking any of the laws pertaining to sex work. Sex workers are put on boundaries, which means that they are not permitted to cross into parts of the city without breaching release conditions. Often, sex workers live within these boundaries, or need to access support services within these boundaries. These harsh release conditions do not help reduce harm to sex workers, but rather increase the likelihood of their incarceration, and further marginalize sex workers in our community.
Sex workers are sisters, brothers, parents, cousins, neighbours, peers, friends, and partners, and some of them are our sisters, brothers, parents, cousins, peers, neighbours, friends, and partners. They are part of our community, whether we know it or not
We’re calling for an end to anti-sex work rhetoric in our communities. As feminists, we stand in solidarity with sex workers, and we’re calling on other feminists to do the same. Supporting sex workers in your community is not always a popular cause, but it’s an important one.
Here is a short list of ways you can help sex workers in your community:
1. Learn more about Canadian anti-sex worker laws and how they endanger sex workers.
2. Talk to your neighbours, family members, and friends about sex work, about decriminalization, and about sex worker rights.
3. Get involved with and donate to your local sex-worker support organization. In Halifax, you can contact Stepping Stone (find their list of donation needs here. Many cities have organizations that assist sex workers in their communities – find out which organizations do that work in your community and see what kind of support they need.
4. Talk to the neighbourhood association or small business association in your neighbourhood. Tell them that supporting sex workers is important to you, and that you don’t want these organizations speaking out against sex worker rights. Explain that decriminalization allows sex workers to work safely.
5. Write letters to the editor of your local newspapers and local politicians explaining why you support the decriminalization of sex work in your community.
This letter was written collaboratively by members of the Feminist League for Agitation Propaganda. Questions, comments, concerns and support can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.