Every year on Dec. 17, sex workers and their allies take to the streets as part of the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. On this audacious day, at least some sex workers are seen and heard, and the public is challenged to acknowledge sex workers as people and as workers. This year, the day falls not even two weeks after the passage of Bill C-36 into Canadian law.
Because of its ambiguous wording and the immense discretion bestowed upon provinces for interpretation, it’s not yet known what the law’s application will look like. But what is clear is that more elements of sex work are now criminalized.
The old laws framed sex workers as a nuisance to society. C-36 paints all sex workers as not only nuisances, but also victims. The bill’s name, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, says it all.
C-36 aims to somehow eradicate sex work in Canada. Senator Don Plett summed up what would be a laughable goal, were it not so deadly. “Of course, we don’t want to make life safe for prostitutes; we want to do away prostitution. That’s the intent of the bill.”
The law sends a strong message: sex workers are disposable. They are to be the scapegoats of collective shame and the sacrificial offering that people outside of the industry are willing to make in an attempt to attain an impossible state of societal purity.
The Conservatives talk of wanting to “end demand” for sexual services, and I wonder what that could mean. Is there a lab somewhere cooking up a pill to end cravings for intimacy? Or maybe an army of attractive sex robots are being programmed as we speak? Ending demand seems like an imaginary Conservative wonderland, and no one wants to talk about the fact that it doesn’t exist and thus no one has any idea of how to get there. In the meantime, prostitution abolitionists are content with an approach that makes sex work dangerous for those who engage in it.
It is dangerous when clients are criminalized. It is dangerous when sex workers are forced into greater isolation. It is dangerous when safety precautions are made impossible. And it will result in nothing but violence against a marginalized group if these heinous laws are enforced.
Violence is refusing to acknowledge that the vulnerability experienced by sex workers is due to the criminalized, stigmatized, devalued and systemically disempowered climate in which they live and work.
Violence is silencing and endangering a small group to uphold the delusions of the ruling class.
Violence is when someone shrugs and asks what sex workers expect after they report harassment from police officers.
Violence is accepting violence as normal and natural, so long as it’s against someone else.
Violence is calling sex workers “whores” who “sell their bodies.” This language suggests that sex workers are things to be purchased rather than lucid, valuable people who make choices, among others, to market and sell services.
This language also keeps the victim stereotype alive. If people are bought and sold as body parts, isn’t that dehumanizing? It would be, if the myth were true. But no sex worker sells their body. They are not passive ragdolls, slaves for the enjoyment of ravenous perverts, as the pornographic imagination might wish to believe. Believing that a certain kind of person is passive and consumable is certainly dangerous, as we have seen in the “for their own good” discourses spewed throughout the passage of Bill C-36.
What happens when sex work is not, in fact, abolished, and we have more deaths and disappearances on our hands, more acts of violence?
Sex workers are people. They are not faceless victims, not lost children, not punchlines, not tropes with which to make the plots of video games, movies, shows and books edgier and sexier. They are not instruments of shock value to be shown as beaten, abused or dead in media portrayals.
They are not two-dimensional characters in someone else’s story; they are complex and complete people who have their own stories and are part of communities. They cannot be sacrificed for a supposedly feminist ideal that wishes to ignore, silence, and erase them.
On Dec 17, in solidarity with sex workers everywhere, you can urge your city and province to not enforce the new laws. You can also write to your premier, asking that the laws be referred to the Supreme Court.
It’s time to applaud the incredible advances sex workers have fought for and won, and to join them in the fight for more.