Editorial, Opinion

Decriminalization would place sex work in the foreground, not the underground

On International Sex Worker Rights Day, March 3, Montreal sex workers and advocates organized to call for the decriminalization of sex work in Canada. While the current law governing sex work—the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, implemented in 2014—has received praise, it ultimately fails to adequately protect sex workers. Instead, its narrowly focusses on exploitation, contains loose prose on sex workers’ ability to communicate their services in the public sphere, and equates of sex work with human trafficking. The law stigmatizes sex workers as immoral, denies them proper labour conditions, and hinders their right to seek sufficient recourse after violent encounters. Municipal, provincial, and federal organizers are doing critical work in educating governments and the public on the varied lived experiences of sex workers. This must coincide with the decriminalization of sex work and a cultural change that humanizes sex workers and recognizes their work as work.

Regardless of one’s individual belief on sex work, laws must reflect that sex workers are deserving of rights and protection from violence. Industries that fail to offer job security, regulation, transparency, and meaningful labour standards doubly affect sex workers, as they face the addtional burden of miscontrued narratives about their profession. Both inside and outside of their job, sex workers are parents, caregivers, hardworking members of their communities. Unspoken barriers to accessing to basic services like health care and community protection due to stigma sends the message that those who engage in sex work are not worth the tax dollars, respect, and effort as those engaged in legal work. Moving toward decriminalization requires serious assessment of counterarguments, however. Beyond superficial value judgements, Indigenous women and leaders raise legitimate concerns about how settler-colonial state violence, surveillance, and control complicates the landscape of sex work. For racialized and undocumented sex workers subject to the violence of borders and policing, this relationship to the state is more fraught.

Arguments that promote criminalization tend to peddle the false belief that it will cause the end of sex work. But this statement removes government responsibility when their criminalization pushes sex workers underground and encourages negative attitudes about people trying to provide for themselves under the thumb of capitalist states. To do sex workers justice is to centre agency in policy debates, rather than victimhood, and to ensure their safety at all levels. 

Just as sex workers must have sustained choice and agency, allies of sex workers must reconsider the ways in which they romanticize the job. When media outlets cover rich, white sex workers who are seemingly happy and fulfilled in their work without a critical lens acknowledging that these instances are the often exceptions, they afford audiences simplicity at sex workers’ expense. These narratives, and larger ones that play into white feminism, like the missing white woman syndrome, take focus off the most affected, such as racialized and trans sex workers. To portray sex workers within the binary of either empowered capitalist girlbosses on OnlyFans or helpless victims is a dehumanizing generalization—it eludes discussions about the oft-exploitative systemic conditions sex workers face. Sex work, like most careers, is not perfect, and it is unfair to pick and choose which forms of sex work to glamourize without beginning to engage with what decriminalization can offer.

The challenges ahead of decriminalization are imposing forces, but they do not offer a reason for governments inaction. Policy solutions must go above rhetoric to include sex workers in employment benefits like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, which many were unable to access during the pandemic, keeping them in hostile socioeconomic conditions. Debates must focus on the agency and choice of sex workers and should offer them generously increased access to housing, healthcare, mental health services, and protection that, in turn, promote sex worker autonomy. At the university level, McGill can take steps to provide more information about sex work, including through channels like It Takes All of Us. As structural shifts will change people’s assumptions and attitudes, an actionable first step is for community members and policymakers alike to listen carefully to foster empathy, not division or dehumanization, for the multitude of sex workers’ experiences.

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