Canada’s “Prostitution Reform” Criminalizes Clients and Puts Sex Workers at Risk

What would “ending demand” for the sex industries really look like?
Publish date:
December 11, 2014
social justice, sex work, Sex,

Canada has often been seen as our more politically progressive northern neighbor. The day after George W. Bush was declared president in 2004, the number of hits from Americans visiting the Canadian government’s immigration website increased six-fold. Many African Americans in the U.S. who give their babies up for adoption are seeking Canadian placements, hoping children will face less racism. This, despite passing the controversial bill, C-36, a so-called “end demand approach to prostitution” which took effect on December 6.

Years ago, when I first heard the concept of End Demand for sex work, I completely misunderstood it. I envisioned a long-term plan to transform men’s sexual appetites and societal conditions. To create a society where men wouldn’t sexually objectify women, where men weren’t emotionally isolated and wouldn’t turn to women with sexualized needs for connection. Where homophobia had been eradicated and men could have close relationships with each other. Where men wouldn’t dominate women and demand sex in any context. Where the very idea of sex without consent would be unthinkable.

Adult films would only be seen by adults and the movies wouldn’t be interesting to men unless they had great storylines about the challenges and triumphs in the women’s lives. And while we’re at it, let’s throw in the caveat that poverty would be totally eradicated and women had a dazzling array of interesting, meaningful and well-paying jobs to choose from, not to mention great childcare options.

Of course this is a utopian vision, but I thought End Demand meant that we were at least aiming for this kind of sweeping societal transformation.

Unfortunately, "ending demand" is a complete misnomer. It’s only about criminalizing demand. This Nordic model is a shift from laws that criminalize sellers of sex to laws that criminalizing buyers of sex. It accompanies a shift in rhetoric from women in the sex trades as criminals to victims. There are also some men who sell sex and some women who buy it, but for the most part, these transactions are women (including trans women) providing services to men.

Certainly, in this context, there are many women who are victims of trafficking, violence, coercion, and manipulation. These women deserve legal protection, and there must be serious consequences for those who abuse and exploit them. Many women survivors of these violations were children or obviously underage at the time. The men who bought those sexual services could have no illusion of consent; they knew full well that were engaging in acts of sexual abuse or rape, statutory or otherwise. Whether or not we can immediately end the demand for purchasing opportunities to sexually abuse young women, we need to enforce consequences for the men who participate in such abuse.

I hope I have been clear in my stand against women being trafficked, manipulated, coerced, threatened, or abused into selling sex. The problem with End Demand strategies is that, by labeling all women in the sex trades as victims, these strategies actually victimize women who choose to sell sex.

Women who choose to sell sex are called sex workers. Numerous sex work advocates have pointed out that when clients’ behavior is subject to legal prosecution, it creates unsafe conditions for sex workers. The ability to attract clients, negotiate transactions, and service them, without police or legal intervention puts sex workers in the strongest positions to protect themselves against violence, sexually transmitted infections and social stigma. According to @EverydayWhorephobia, “My big surprise when I started [full service sex work]... how insecure and worrying men are. Many fret about their safety or being ripped off.”

How can a sex worker distinguish between the client who mistrusts her safety protocols because he is fearful, from the client who wishes her harm? As Elizabeth Nolan Brown put it in her article about C-36, “What good is an end to criminal penalties for selling sex if you can still be arrested for advertising or promoting prostitution? And how are sex workers supposed to safely make a living if their clients constantly fear arrest?”

There are certainly different perspectives on how freely women choose to sell sex. As I explained in a previous article on decriminalization in xoJane, “survival sex work is where economic circumstances coerce women into sex work who really don’t want to do it. However, in these cases, as sex worker/activist Lori Adorable has pointed out, the problem isn’t sex workers or their clients; the problem is poverty.” Criminalizing the clients of economically vulnerable women only makes the women more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

Some feminists and others who oppose the sexual exploitation of women often push back on the sex worker advocacy agenda. This week, British columnist Sarah Ditum argued in the New Statesman, “Why we shouldn't rebrand prostitution as ‘sex work.’" Ditum says, “When we talk about ‘sex work’, we endorse the idea that sex is labour for women and leisure for men – men who have the social and economic power to act as a boss class in the matter of intercourse. And most damningly of all, we accept that women's bodies exist as a resource to be used by other people.”

Ditum seems to be missing the point. This is many women’s reality. Language like "sex work" doesn't "endorse" it, rather it acknowledges that this dynamic is operating. Historically, for many women in various parts of the society, sex is labor. Whether it’s the member of the British nobility who’s supposed close her eyes and think of the empire as she procreates to produce an heir, or whether it’s the New York gold-digger married to the older wealthy man, or whether it’s the Midwestern college girl doing what the guy likes and faking the orgasm because she wants him to call her again, or the Hollywood actress on the casting couch to get a breakthrough role.

When Ditum says, “sex is generally supposed to be a pleasure rather than a tedious obligation,” she is articulating a goal, not a reality. We don’t live in a world where nearly all the women are having great sex, but sex workers are ruining the party. Sex as labor is the norm. Sex workers didn’t invent this norm and they don’t have any type of monopoly on it. I agree with Ditum that women having sex for pleasure is a key and still mostly unrealized goal for feminism. When I think of my original misinterpretation of End Demand, I suspect Ditum and I have many common goals for how we would want our societies to look different. But when pushing back on worldwide male domination that demands sexual labor from women across the board, don’t target the laborers, target the system.

The problems of male domination, sexual violence, sexual exploitation, poverty, and the vulnerability that sex workers face are complex and layered issues. They won’t be solved with catchy campaign titles or one-size-fits-all solutions. But I believe that we can fight for multi-faceted policies that respond to the needs of people who have been sexually and economically exploited, as well as those who choose sex work. These needs are not mutually exclusive, but lawmakers aren’t looking for real solutions that protect all women involved as much as they are looking for opportunities to appear tough on crime, or as rescuers of trafficking victims, or as effective in passing legislation to clean up the streets.

When short-sighted and opportunistic legal solutions prevail, the wedge gets driven more deeply between different women on different sides of the choice equation in the sex industries, women who could help save and improve each other’s lives if they sought shared solutions. Peechington Marie, a former sex worker, advocates decriminalization but is also relentlessly honest about the harms that women encounter in the sex trades: "there are a ton of sex workers who have ugly stories. stories of terror and tragedy, rape and abuse, daddy issues and drug habits, and more. there are sex workers who wish they didn’t have to do this job. there are sex workers who would rather do anything else than do this job....we need to be here for them, too." Sex workers often have important information about trafficking activity, but cannot safely share it if they fear negative consequences when interacting with the authorities.

I wish that truly “ending demand” were on the table. I wish we had a vision of a world where escort ads of busty young blondes would go unanswered because men would look at the picture and wonder how they could possibly be interested in having sex with her when they had no idea what she liked to read and whether she enjoyed hiking. But until that day comes, all women have to figure out how to navigate a world where we are routinely sexually objectified. Meanwhile, I am not willing to settle for “End Demand” policies that aim to make lawmakers feel good and ostensibly protect one group of women by throwing another group of women under the bus.

Image credit: Mikasi, licensed under Creative Commons.