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Prostitution is more than a labour rights issue

Canada's proposed prostitution bill argues that prostitution harms women and children and targets demand.

Last updated: 07 Aug 2014 14:39
Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy is a journalist from Vancouver, Canada.
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Prostitution can happen to any woman, but the risk is much greater for marginalised women, writes Murphy [AP]

Is prostitution simply a job like any other? Or is it a system that, at its core, further entrenches gender inequality and normalises violence against women? This question is central, not only in terms of how we view the sex industry and its impact on society, but also to the way in which we approach sex work from a legislative perspective.

In 2007, a case challenging Canada's prostitution laws as unconstitutional resulted in the Supreme Court of Canada throwing out the laws criminalising pimping, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, and running a brothel. The federal government was therefore tasked with generating new laws and drafted Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.

The newly proposed legislation, unveiled in June, explicitly targets the exploiters - meaning the pimps and johns - and positions women who end up in the sex trade as victims, not criminals. If passed, the bill will criminalise the purchase of sex, pimping, and third-party advertising for sexual services (meaning it would be legal for a prostitute to advertise his or her own services, but not for others to advertise on their behalf).

Prostituted people would be decriminalised, though it would be illegal to communicate for the purposes of selling sex near a playground, school or daycare.

The bill has been hotly debated in the media and has been subjected to lengthy and rigorous hearings in front of the House of Commons justice committee. Women's groups, academics, researchers, law enforcement officers, legal experts, front line anti-violence workers, and prostituted women - both exited women and those currently working in the industry - themselves testified about the experiences, evidence, ideology or work that led them to believe prostitution was either inherently violent and exploitative, or a job that some simply choose and should be legalised or fully decriminalised in order to ensure women's safety.

Labour rights in prostitution?

While the topic of prostitution is complex, the debate among progressives is divided along relatively simple lines. That is to say, on the left, there are two obvious camps: One argues that prostitution is primarily an issue of health, safety, and labour rights as it is, after all, work, and the other argues that prostitution exists because of deep inequality and systemic oppression and will never be "safe" or, simply, "a job like any other".

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The "sex work is work" faction argues that if prostitution is legal, it can be regulated and therefore made "safer". Beyond that, the theory goes, if legalised or fully decriminalised, prostitutes could organise, have access to labour laws that would protect them from abuse, and work "freely", out in the open - supposedly allowing for the existence of a safe, legal industry wherein people in prostitution are autonomous and empowered.

Those who believe prostitution constitutes violence against women, on the other hand, don't believe there is such a thing as a safe, legal industry and see prostitution as a product of class, race and gender inequality and as inherently exploitative.

While it is very tempting for progressives to want to support any argument for labour rights, the foundation upon which this position sits is shaky.

There is, in fact, no place in the world that has managed to make prostitution safe for women, despite efforts to regulate the industry and even to form unions of sorts. Under legalised regimes, trafficking and an illegal industry thrive.

In Amsterdam, for example, even the legal, red light district is said to be run by organised crime, and violence against the women working in the windows continues. While the argument that "sex work is work" and that prostitutes should be able to choose how they work appeals to our progressive sensibilities, it ignores the reality of the industry and the fact that, for most women and girls, prostitution is either not a choice at all, or is one made under duress. 

The effort to frame the violence that happens in prostitution as workplace violence, as Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario president, Fred Hahn did recently, displays a deep misunderstanding of the gendered nature of the violence inherent to prostitution and a lack of knowledge around what has played out under legalisation. It also shows an extreme disregard for women's basic human rights and their right not to be prostituted.

The issue of gender

Prostitution can happen to any woman, but the risk is much greater for marginalised women. Despite the fact that Aboriginal women only make up 2-4 percent of the population in Canada, they represent 70 percent of those working in street prostitution on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside - Canada's so-called poorest postal code and the area from which at least 60 women disappeared over 20 years, beginning in the 1980s.

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These women are also not the women who would be granted access to the supposedly safe legal brothels. And even if they were, what we have learned from exited prostituted women such as Trisha Baptie, who testified in the Bill C-36 hearings, is that abuse happens to people in prostitution despite their location.

Working indoors doesn't protect women from men's violence and the notion that it would, defies logic. Feminists have long pointed out that most violence against women happens behind closed doors, often at the hands of men they know - not from strangers in the street. Baptie also pointed out that, while working as a prostitute, there was no way for her to know which johns would turn out to be violent; that no amount of screening could protect her.

The Conservative government is right to target the exploiters in their proposed legislation. What a focus on labour rights does is to ignore the realities that the bill attempts to address: that prostitution "has a disproportionate impact on women and children" and that "the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual activity" causes "social harm".

The only way to address the violence that happens to women in prostitution is to go to the source - ie the demand. It is unconscionable that anyone, but leftists in particular - those who claim a vested interest in the creation of a just and equitable society, one that values human life and dignity beyond profit and self-interest - would devalue the rights of women to dignity and a life free from male violence.

Rape is not a labour violation. Nor is murder, trafficking, child exploitation, or abuse. Patriarchy is not a labour violation. If we truly want a world that is safe for women and girls, we need to be honest about the reality of prostitution - why it exists and why it continues to exist, as well as how that reality impacts both individual women's lives and the global status of women as a whole.

The proposed bill has passed both first and second readings before the House of Commons and will return to the House for third reading in September before going to the Senate. Canada's current laws expire in December 2014 and the government has pledged to pass Bill C-36 by then.

Meghan Murphy is a journalist from Vancouver, Canada. Her website is Feminist Current.

Follow her on Twitter: @MeghanEMurphy

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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