Simone de Beauvoir Institute - A Feminist Position On Sex Work
Simone de Beauvoir Institute’s Statement:
A Feminist Position on Sex Work
The Simone de Beauvoir Institute of Concordia University supports the recent decision by Ontario Superior Court judge Susan Himel with regards to Canada’s prostitution laws.
We support this decision as feminists, and in particular as feminists who have taken a position of leadership with regards to sexuality. The Simone de Beauvoir Institute is the oldest women’s studies program in Canada, established in 1978. We were the first Canadian university women’s studies to offer a course on lesbian studies (1985), we helped organize La Ville en Rose, an international conference on lesbian and gay studies held in 1992, and were active in the implementation of the first undergraduate course on HIV/AIDS at any Canadian university (1994). Since 2006, we offer an elective course entitled “Framing the prostitute,” which considers the ways in which debates about prostitution are constructed – within feminist, policy, and activist sites.
For more than three decades, then, the Simone de Beauvoir Institute has provided leadership with regards to questions of sexuality. Our position in support of the Himel decision continues a long tradition of deep reflection and action with regards to sexuality.
The Context of Prostitution Laws in Canada
The exchange of sex for money is entirely legal in Canada. But most of the things in and around prostitution are criminalized. These include:
• communicating for the purposes of prostitution;
• being an owner or a “found-in” in a common bawdy house; and
• forcibly requiring someone to enter into prostitution – the “pimping laws”
The Himel Decision
The judge’s decision argues that the three elements of prostitution laws outlined above prevent women from working safely. For example, women cannot communicate clearly about questions of sexuality, including protection from sexually transmitted diseases with a client, when they fear being charged with a communicating offense. To provide another example, women cannot team up and work together out of an apartment, because the apartment in question could be considered a common bawdy house. Alternatively, women who live with a partner could see their partner charged under the pimping laws, “living on the avails” of a sex worker. These laws also prevent women from organizing collectively to ensure their safety and well-being: from setting up a union, to finding health insurance.
Judge Himel, having considered the evidence presented before her, reasoned that these existing provisions of the Criminal Code actually create a context in which women who work in the sex trade are at increased danger. The ruling argues that the existing laws on prostitution cause harm to women, because they subject them to further violence. As such, the current provisions of the Criminal Code violate a Charter guaranteed right, the right to life, liberty and security of the person.
The ruling gives the federal government 30 days to launch an appeal. While the ruling is located in Ontario, it could have repercussions in other provinces as well since it questions the constitutionality of certain sections of the Criminal Code itself.
Why We Support This Decision as Feminists
• The ruling raises the important question of women’s right to control their working conditions and their working environments. Given that the exchange of sex for money is not a criminal act in Canada, we support the ability of women to define the conditions in which they work. This includes the situations of women who work in the sex trade.
• We do not deny that there may be abuse of power and violence within the sex trade – just as we can witness violence and power abuse in any work environment. We feel that the safety and health of women is improved to the extent that they have control over their working conditions. As feminists, we have laboured for years to ensure women’s active participation in defining the working conditions of our lives. Our commitment to this principle includes the lives of women who work in the sex trade.
• We also support this decision as feminists because history tells us that these same prostitution laws have been used in particular against marginalized communities. For example, the Montréal gay bar Truxx was raided in 1977 under the bawdy house laws. This scenario was repeated again in 1994, when Montreal police raided the gay bar K.O.X., again claiming it was a common bawdy house. In the late 1990s, swinger establishments in the greater Montreal region were raided under the bawdy house laws as well. Laws on the books which criminalize prostitution allow the state to target the spaces, events and communities of the sexually marginalized. As feminists, our solidarity with lesbian and gay communities compels us to reject the criminalization of prostitution, because the historical evidence in Canada clearly shows that, while on the surface such laws are used to “protect” women, the reality is that these laws are mobilized against sexual minorities in particular.
Doesn’t Prostitution Harm Women? How Can Feminists Support It?
In discussing the question of prostitution and the recent Himel decision, some people maintain that prostitution in and of itself harms women. Many feminists in particular advance such an argument. The reality is more complex than such a position. In fact, the Himel decision is precisely of interest to us as feminists because it asks us to think about how we define harm itself. Laws designed to protect women can also cause harm, as a selected use of bawdyhouse laws against lesbian/gay communities indicates.
Similarly, a law that prevents women from determining their working conditions causes harm insofar as it undermines women’s agency and autonomy in the workplace. We agree with the Himel decision that the laws on prostitution in Canada harm women, and that this harm violates women’s Charter guarantee to security of the person. The security of the person assures the right to live free of violence. It is thus as feminists committed to ending violence against women that we support the Himel decision.
One of the most important lessons of feminist politics is the necessity of genuine consultation. Feminists have argued that women need to be given the vote if a democratic state can claim to have consulted them as citizens. Labour feminists have maintained that women workers need to be consulted if we are to understand how a particular work environment affects women. Just as feminists before us have insisted on the importance of consulting with women, so too do we underline the importance of genuine dialogue with women who work in the sex trade. Our commitment to feminist politics requires that we speak directly with the women who are living a specific reality, and that we work with them to improve their situation as they see fit.
Recommendations for Future Reflection and Actions in This Regard
At the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, we are committed to:
• the decriminalization of sex work in Canada, meaning a context in which the exchange of sexual services for money does not figure within the Criminal Code of Canada;
• protesting against laws that cause harm to women, even if the intention behind those laws is to “protect” women;
• supporting women’s agency to define their working conditions, including sex workers;
• acknowledging the expertise of sex trade workers in our reflections on these issues; and working with women to end violence. This commitment includes genuine collaboration with sex trade workers to identify and implement the strategies they identify as relevant for countering violence against them as women and as workers.
The Faculty and Students of the Simone de Beauvoir Institute
Viviane Namaste, PhD, Research Chair in HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health
Professor, Simone de Beauvoir Institute
514-848-2424 x 2371 or firstname.lastname@example.org