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Bedford's Nice, But Government Still Hates Whores

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

On December 20th, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada declared several of Canada’s prostitution laws unconstitutional. In Bedford vs Canada, three women with experience in the sex trade launched a court challenge against sections of the Criminal Code criminalizing prostitution. (Currently, the physical act of exchanging sex for money is not illegal, but other aspects of the sex trade are.)

It’s tempting to look at the decision as a significant challenge to the marginalization of sex workers and a stepping stone to full decriminalization of the sex trade. Although Bedford is neither, it does has the potential to drastically impact the ways sex workers conduct our business. Briefly, the decision means that the federal government must strike down the laws ruled unconstitutional and create new ones within the next year. The three laws specified are:

  1. Section 213(1)(C), “communicating for the purposes of prostitution,” which criminalizes the verbal or physical solicitation of clients as well as communication about services and rates. This law forces street-based workers to conduct their business in places where they’re least likely to be noticed and reported and where they’re more likely to be vulnerable to violence. It also makes all workers’ means of screening their clients and setting emotional and physical boundaries illegal. Section 213(1)(c) accounts for over 90% of prostitution-related convictions, mostly of street workers (who are disproportionately indigenous women), rather than clients. This section is often cited as the most dangerous to sex workers’ safety and health.

  2. Section 210, “the operation of common bawdy-houses,” which criminalizes some indoor work environments, like working from home or renting or leasing property and running a sex work-based business out of it. This section forces many workers to navigate the risks associated with outdoor, street-based work.

  3. Section 212 (1)(j), “living off the avails of prostitution,” is intended to prohibit organized crime rings and pimps from profiting off of sex workers’ exploited labour. According to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, “the living- on-the-avails offence does not require proof of coercion. Escort agency owners have been convicted of living on the avails in the absence of coercion.”

It’s important to stress that Bedford is not a panacea for sex workers’ rights in Canada. Criminalization and stigmatization of sex workers do not exist in a vacuum: they are deeply rooted in misogyny, racism, and poverty— social conditions that are legislated as well as encultured. In a statement that should surprise absolutely no one, Justice Minister Peter McKay responded that the government is “…exploring all possible options to ensure the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities, those engaged in prostitution and vulnerable persons.” In other words, the government will do everything it can to ensure that sex workers stay in the margins, where the dominant culture’s notions of morality, gender roles, white supremacy, and work require us to be.

Legal challenges like Bedford should be viewed with cautious optimism. We don’t need the state, or anyone, to legitimize our dignity: we affirm it ourselves, in our communities, with our families, friends and lovers. We do need the state to back the fuck off, but they’re not the whole picture. The police, courts, and social services work in tandem with cultural narratives of sex workers as immoral, deviant and diseased to silence us, shame us and chip away at our freedoms. For these and a dozen other reasons, we are always going to need radical grassroots sex worker movements, self-defence and self-organization, and solidarity with other communities who recognize the intersection of their struggles with ours. No asshole justice minister or chief judge is going to give us what we need. We’ll have to hustle hard, have each others’ backs and fight—joyfully and fiercely— until we get ours.


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Fannie Hustle (Edie Hustle)
Canada
Member since Janvier 2014

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Edie Hustle is a writer, editor, and sex worker in a mid-sized Canadian city. She thinks radical movements have a ton to learn to learn from sex workers (because our struggle is your struggle, too).

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