Rights not Rescue

Though Canada’s laws are meant to prevent harm, they actually help create the unsafe conditions that make violence against sex workers possible.
Photo by Reinaldo Kevin on Unsplash.

December 17th is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers

At the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP), we speak with sex workers in our community every day. We create a safe space for them to talk about their work, about their lives, about their concerns, and about their moments of celebration. And we also hear them talk about the violence they sometimes encounter as sex workers.

While the harms of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) are mentioned less often than the violent actions of abusive individuals, the implications of the Act affect the lives of sex workers in our community daily. PCEPA is the current law on the books for Canada and it claims to decriminalize activities performed by sex workers. However, it re-directs the criminal burden and places it on clients instead, as well as websites that allow sex workers to market their work, security people who protect sex workers, and anyone else who helps sex workers do their work safely. The language in PCEPA labels every client of sex work an inherent villain, and every sex worker an inherent victim. This binary could not be further from the truth and these presumptions are harmful to the wellbeing of sex workers.

The first International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers in 2003 was a vigil to commemorate victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle, Washington, organized by Dr. Annie Sprinkle of the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA. Since then, it has become a day for sex workers and allies to come together–not only to honour victims–but to identify and address  the root causes of violence against sex workers. We must take the time to acknowledge the  people who have suffered and those who have had their lives taken because of their participation in the sex trade. However, we also need to critically examine the apparatus which hides behind this violence, and plays a key role in perpetuating it – the government of Canada.

Sex work is not inherently dangerous, harmful laws and ideas are

PCEPA controls and oppresses sex workers under the guise of helping them. It denies them the freedom to advertise their sexual services and limits sex workers’ ability to use their own experience and judgement to properly screen clients. Furthermore, by preventing them from working together, it also restricts their capacity to keep each other safe. Spinning a hollow tale of chivalry and protection, the government ignores overwhelming evidence which includes the testimony of sex workers themselves that PCEPA’s regulations make sex work more dangerous.

Sex workers often cannot report the violence perpetrated against them. When you criminalize so many aspects of the industry, it increases the shame and stigma that sex workers face, which makes reporting violence unsafe. When you make it impossible to advertise online, it hinders a sex worker’s ability to work indoors and to e-screen potential clients. When you stop people from working together or with a team of security and reception staff, you stop them from putting safety channels in place. When the state makes it impossible for people to keep themselves safe – this is violence.

Laws that perpetuate the belief that any person who chooses to provide sexual services is not making rational decisions, promote and reinforce the stigma that makes sex workers so susceptible to violence.

Villains and Victims

In criminalizing the client, PCEPA implies that every client is always already a villain. A client entering into a sex work transaction is aware of this implication: I am bad, they are innocent and unknowing. This encourages shame and secrecy, which can trigger reactive behaviour that can escalate into violence. That violence in turn, happens out of sight in intimate situations and it ends up being aimed at those who are considered by society to be vulnerable, prone to assault anyway,  and thus disposable. It makes for the perfect storm. 

Furthermore, because of the way the law conflates consensual sex work with human trafficking in Canada, some clients could come to see themselves as part of a group that exploits others. This “all or nothing” predicament makes it easier for clients to presume they have all the power, and that this power is automatically destructive. It also lends itself to the notion that sex workers are already victims, and have no agency at all. This can create a troubling dynamic that can lead to harmful behaviours. 

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash.

In places where sex work has been decriminalized, not only are sex workers able to report instances of violence, clients too are able to report exploitative behaviour. When they are able to differentiate between themselves and traffickers/abusers, respectful clients are able to come forward about the abusive behaviour of others. Consensual sex is not a bad thing. If someone wants to hire someone who is consensually offering sexual services, if that client wants to be respectful about it, and if the sex worker benefits from the transaction–what exactly is the problem? The real problem lies in the restrictions imposed by PCEPA, regulations which restrict sex workers’ ability to screen clients or hire folks to help with business operations and safety protocols.

The discourse behind PCEPA insists that it is not possible to choose to do sex work. It presumes that if someone chooses to do sex work, they are not of sound mind and their judgement is not to be trusted. Ingrained in this mentality is the deep-seated desire to control women, bodily autonomy, and sexuality in general. But sex workers are not powerless. Far from it. Despite state and societal oppression, we meet sex workers everyday who are fierce and steadfast. They are labour and human rights activists, they are mothers and sisters, students, neighbours–they are people with  full lives with desires and dreams. They are anyone who decides that they want to share their sexuality in a way that offers a service that benefits them financially. 

Rights, not Rescue!

Consenting adults engaging in transactional sexual activity can only be protected by decriminalizing their livelihoods and their identities. Restricting their freedom to choose how these activities are carried out does not protect them. Only the adults interacting in a sexual encounter get to determine whether it is consensual – not the law. PCEPA is a fundamentally paternalistic set of regulations, despite its decided success in masquerading as the opposite. It is robbing sex workers of agency and safety. 

So, what can you do to mark the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers? Support the full decriminalization of sex work and end the state’s control over bodies and sexuality. Show up at rallies in solidarity, recognize and refute harmful generalizations about sex workers. Fund and endorse your local sex work outreach programs and projects. Educate yourself about the importance of decriminalizing sex work and share that knowledge with friends. And, whenever you get a chance to say it, do: Rights, Not Rescue!

Heather Austin (she/they) is the Outreach & Advocacy Organizer with the Safe Harbour Outreach Project (SHOP) and holds a master’s degree in sociology from MUN. Heather believes fiercely in the rights of sex workers, the decriminalization of sex work, and in social justice for all. They hold an enormous love for nature, humanity, and creativity.

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