Well, Monday March 26, the Supreme Court of Ontario ruled on the appeal of the Bedford case, which challenges the constitutionality of Canada’s prostitution laws. you can find it here.
Apparently, Canada’s prostitution laws violate the charter rights of
prostituted women sex workers. Specifically, the right to freedom of association (sec. 2d), and the right to Life, Liberty and Security of Person (sec. 7) . The appeal judges decided that the Communicating law did not violate the Charter rights of prostituted people sex workers, and represented a reasonable limit on rights to expression. Because as we know, it is difficult to tell–no matter how much time you have to “screen” some guy– when he’s going to go off on you. Women in prostitution have told us many stories about going with men they knew, regular ‘clients’, men the met and talked with for an hour or so in the bar, men referred to them by trusted friends– who, when alone with them, became violent. And, you know, women often MARRY men who turn out to be abusive– five minutes on a street corner isn’t going to make a difference–he always decides how to behave, she will never have that control. In theory, then, the communicating law can be used against the men who buy sex.
You know, of course, that even though it is always men who initiate communication for the purposes of prostitution (“hey, baby, how much?”) –it is almost always women who are charged under this law*.
On the other hand, running or being found in a common bawdy house and living on the avails of prostitution will no longer be illegal. the Government of Canada has one year to rewrite the law to decriminalize pimping, except in cases of trafficking, child prostitution or other exploitative circumstances. Because, you know, women who are sucking cock indoors are not exploited. That’s “consensual commercial sex” or something. those women are CHOOSING this ‘work’.Also they are much less of a nuisance than women who are sold on the street corners. Who, by the way, may ALSO be there by choice.
But now they can CHOOSE to work inside–now they can CHOOSE to set up shop together, now, they have CHOICES of how to do their work–
“An underlying premise of this project is that difficult choices made under constrained conditions are still choices and, indeed, many of the sex workers that worked on this project felt insulted by the repeated accusation that they are not capable of making “real” choices” (2004, Pivot Legal Society: Voices for Dignity, p. 6)
That there quote is from a report by Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver. they are also launching a Charter Challenge against Canada’s solicitation laws. As evidence, they gathered 90 affidavits from women in prostitution in the Downtown Eastside from the women who ‘felt insulted’.
Let me take a moment to pick that quote apart a bit. First of all, “choice” is a noun, right? it is a thing. Something one can have or make. When women’ make difficult choices’, they are making them out of some material, let’s call this material “options”, or “conditions”. these are, in concrete terms, the option to sleep; to eat; to rest; to clean herself; to read; to care for her children; to nurture friendships; to feel comfort. She can pick any or all of these options, she can do any of these things with her pocket full o’ choice. But she needs something else in order to do any of these things, because we live in a free market capitalist society. She needs money. She has to buy all of these options. For all of them, she needs money. Money to afford the rent to pay for a place to sleep, and food to eat. Money to pay for clean clothes, soap and a towel; money to pay for all the things her children need to thrive under her care. And if she can’t get enough money for any of that, she’s gonna be in pain. So she needs money to pay for the drugs she will take in order to numb the pain — of exhaustion, hunger, humiliation, and the deep sorrow of being without her children. and drugs are cheaper than rent. What does that even mean in the context of prostitution? The women who make these choices are resourceful and brave and annoying and funny and tough and obnoxious. The women who are in the most danger, those women who populate the dark corners of the inner city; the women who find themselves alone and impoverished in mid-life; the women who can’t both pay the rent and feed the kids; the women who can’t bear the pain of living without drugs that numb the pain of memories– these women ‘choose’ prostitution because there are no other choices.
Pivot never revealed who made the “repeated accusations” about these womens’ capability. I suspect, however, that they mean abolitionists. They mean me. And they mean many of the women who work with women in the Downtown Eastside, and in the rest of the city, and all over the world. They mean those of us who are not content with merely ‘meeting women where they are’. We want to meet her, and get her out. I can’t be free until no woman has to fuck a man in order to have a meal or pay the rent or get her kid a birthday present. The INSULT, dear Pivot Lawyer people, is that they have to live in this beautiful city, surrounded by all this abundance, and ‘choose’ to suck cock for money in order to afford anything remotely resembling a choice. This post by Janine Benedet says it better than I can.
What does that even mean, “real choices”? of course they are capable of making real choices. But they don’t have the raw material necessary in order to *make* choices. they are capable. they don’t have the resources. They are “public women” hidden from the public. They do not have influence, tools, language, money, power, or the means to use them. They are in deep trouble. They are victimized daily–by the men who buy them, by the state that keeps them impoverished, by the weight of patriarchy and capitalism and racism all together hobbling them together as an abject mass.
And who wants to be known as a victim? nobody. But if we don’t know the victims, we let the perpetrator get away, too.
Here’s what one woman had to say about her life as a “sex worker”, and how empowering it is:
I feel more empowered in a lot of ways than many women. Women who are accustomed to living a normal 9-5 existence and are married and perhaps have kids would find it extremely difficult were they to find themselves in circumstances like those I have to live with. If an ordinary middle-class woman were to find herself in a hotel room in the DTES with no money, no food, the rent due, their belongings stolen and the landlord banging on the door, they would likely slash their wrists, or at the very least need psychiatric help, since that’s the only kind of help they could get. If I were to find myself in their position on the other hand, I could easily adapt to their circumstances. However, I’ve only lived in the Downtown Eastside for seven years. If I’d lived here much longer, I don’t know that I’d be alive (From an affidavit used as evidence in the Charter Challenge by Pivot Legal Society).
Empowered indeed. the Pivot Legal Society used as evidence for their Charter Challenge case (similar to the Bedford case) anonymous affidavits from 90 prostituted people (almost all women) in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Bedford relied upon arguments based on three women in prostitution, two of whom now pimp other women, rather than do it themselves, and the other who primarily is prostituted indoors. Judge Himel’s decision makes for interesting (if depressing) reading, you can find it here.
Himel acknowledged in her ruling that women in prostitution faced many dangers. But agreed with the applicants that repealing the laws would reduce these dangers.
Well. it will certainly reduce inconveniences to men who are seeking to buy sex. Every one of the affidavits from the Bedford case, and from the Pivot case too, describe coercion, violence and harassment by MEN. Women said they were afraid of being criminalized, and annoyed that the laws were unevenly applied, and that they suffered from shame and stigma, to be sure. But they also related harrowing stories of beatings, rape, theft and other degradations meted upon them by the men who cruised the streets and the internet looking to buy a hand or a hole into which to thrust their penis. Clearly, every one of the women who testified about their experiences in prostitution, on both sides of the argument, have been victims. They were victimized by the men who bought and used them; victimized by police, courts, social services…
and they are victimized by the folks who call for harm reduction and for decriminalization and regulation and for more respect for
sex workers’ choices (how can ya have respect for something that isn’t there?), and more dignity for their work without questioning the men who victimize these women in the first place. If you don’t acknowledge there are victims, you will never see the perpetrators. And so it goes.
Here’s the F-word blog post by Laura Johnston, which describes the implications of the appeal decision.
so much heat and no light. all this talk about ‘respect’ ‘dignity’ ‘choice’ ‘agency’
fuck that. Hah! that’s a pun, considering the topic of this post. That’s it, eh? that’s what decriminalizing prostitution amounts to, really. ‘fuck yer agency, baby. here’s twenty bucks to get on yer knees.’
I’ve said it before, i’ll say it again, repealing these laws will not make these women safer. And even if it would, “safer” is still not safe. Safe is not the same as free. Women might be absolutely safe from further assault inside brothels. But they’re a long long way from freedom. Therefore, we are ALL a long long way from freedom.
Carry on, then. we’ve more work to do here.
* mind you, for at least the last 5 years, the local police have not arrested anyone under the prostitution laws. Not the women, which is fine; but not the men, either, which is not fine. And anyway, there is nothing else for the women–not housing not training or education not decent jobs even if you get some education, and not childcare if you get a job or place in school–it’s a rat maze, eh. And so far the only path to the tube that dispenses the yummy pellets is prostitution or drug dealing…or participating in research projects…