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Sex work makes for strange bedfellows

October 7, 2010


Women marching for respect. Also, showing off a hella hot banner.


It’s fitting that the week British Columbia appoints the head of its Pickton Inquiry, a Superior Court judge in Ontario strikes down sex work laws. Both are reflective of a longstanding, simmering debate that may finally be boiling over to the surface of Canadian politics.

It’s about time. Canada is one of the last developed countries in the world to have a proper public debate on sex work. The long-form census, sure — we’ll raise bloody ire about that. But God forbid we discuss where, how, and when people can exchange money for sex.

The last time sex workers’ rights were in the news, it was a youth policy passed by the Liberal Party of Canada at its 2005 convention, calling for those among its ranks in government to begin the process of decriminalizing sex work.

It was an odd coalition that amalgamated support behind the policy at the time, from the youth wing to former waffle-members to civil libertarians. The National Post endorsed the policy in an editorial calling it “fresh thinking on the oldest profession.”

The twilight-zone oddity of Liberal youth banding together with groups on the far political right in favour of a genuine policy shift was outdone last week by the federal Conservative and Ontario Liberal governments banding together against it.

The debate is so contentious it crosses partisan lines. The typical paradigm for understanding political disagreement in this country — left versus right, progressive versus conservative — does not hold for the debate about sex workers’ rights.

Rather, it’s an issue of realists versus idealists. Idealists think sex work is dirty and generally for bad people, both on the buying and selling end. They also think everyone else shares their worldview. That’s why you won’t see Prime Minister Stephen Harper ladling noodles for a photo op at a sex worker support group and soup kitchen. The idealists are the first ones to jump on the “won’t somebody think of the children!” bandwagon, largely out of fears based on the dingy opening scenes of Pretty Woman.

On the other hand, there are the rest of us. We may not know all the legal details. We may not have met a single sex worker up close, first hand, in our whole lives. But we do know that when 50 women go missing from the Vancouver East Side and nobody blinks an eye, there’s a problem. It’s a problem that’s less about rules regarding where sex workers can negotiate the terms of their dates — though the Ontario Superior Court is correct that it’s the largest logistical peril — and more about the way we treat sex workers. It’s about the way we ignore them.

Around the same time of the 2005 Liberal Party Convention, the House of Commons Department of Justice committee conducted a review of the solicitation laws. One of the overarching themes expressed again and again by experts in the field and former sex workers was that prohibiting sex workers to negotiate their terms in public is the primary job hazard, particularly those in the survival sex trade. This law forces the bartering into dark alleys and strange cars to avoid ticketing or arrest. The vulnerability of the sex workers in these situations facilitates violence, sexual assault and murder à la Robert Pickton.

If we continue to accept laws that prevent sex workers from negotiating in public, they will continue to face violence, assault and murder in an effort to earn a living. Like the Justice Subcommittee on Solicitation, the upcoming Pickton Inquiry will once again remind Canadians coast to coast that ignoring the problem will not make it go away.

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