Who really speaks for sex workers?
Who could forget Xaviera Hollander, also known as the Happy Hooker?
She was a leading pop-culture fixture of the 1970s, single-handedly reinventing our idea of prostitution. She was nobody’s victim – she was empowered! She was in charge! She loved her work! Along with Hugh Hefner, her message was that sex, unencumbered by attachment, could be wholesome, healthy and fun. It could also be a damn good business, and so what? The moralizing state should take its outdated, prudish attitude toward the sex trade and stuff it.
Many men applauded this new liberalism (no surprise there). Women were less enthusiastic. But gradually, a consensus emerged among the educated elite that prostitution was more or less a victimless crime. If a woman chose to sell her body, why not? Advertisements for paid sex exploded, supporting a hundred hip, progressive city magazines.
Meantime, rights groups were hard at work attempting to remove the stigma from the world’s oldest profession. “Hookers” and “streetwalkers” were rebranded as “sex workers,” who deserved dignity, respect and protection, rather than punishment. Sex work was just like any other work, the argument went, and sex workers were entitled to decent working conditions like everybody else. Their industry didn’t need suppression, which, in any event, would simply drive it underground and make things worse. It needed bylaws.
This was the climate for the case brought to the Supreme Court last year by three sex workers and their lawyers. They argued that the current laws should be thrown out because they made sex work unsafe. Their goal was legalization. Their leading spokesperson was Terri-Jean Bedford, an engaging, Xaviera-like entrepreneur who dresses in leather and specializes in catering to men’s bondage fantasies. She is not typical of most prostitutes – so far as I know, she doesn’t have sex with her clients, or take orders from them. Her job is to give the orders.
The Supreme Court did throw out the law, and told Parliament to come up with a new one. But instead of decriminalizing the sex trade, as many had hoped, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have decided to suppress it. Why? Because, the government argues, prostitution is inherently damaging to women (and others who sell sex). The best way to guarantee their safety and dignity is not to legalize and regulate the industry, but to criminalize the buyers and rehabilitate the sellers.
You might be surprised to hear who supports this approach. They’re not all social conservatives. The advocates also include groups that speak for the most vulnerable women in Canada – native women, street women, women in trouble with the law, women with serious addiction issues, women who’ve been raped and pimped and violently abused. These women do not ply their trade in upscale condos or the back pages of progressive magazines. You can find them in the alleys of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, turning tricks for drugs.
Michèle Audette is president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, the group that has been arguing so passionately for an inquiry into missing native women. For these women, she argues, the idea of “choice” is ludicrous. For them, sex can never be a transaction among equals. And the sex industry is inherently a form of violence. “These are not the people who have the money to pay the lawyers,” she says. “They don’t choose. They are there for many sad reasons.”
She doesn’t buy the argument that legalization would make these women safer by allowing them to work in brothels. “The majority of our sisters have AIDS or HIV, and they wouldn’t be hired. They’d still be at the end of a dark alley with nobody to protect them,” she told me. She does believe strongly that men who buy sex must be stigmatized and criminalized in order to discourage them: “If we say buying sex is not a crime, it will bring more violence to women.”
She also believes that we owe it to our daughters and sons to send a message about human values – that sex work is not like other work. “We have to teach our children that making love is something special. You can’t buy it,” she said.
This is by no means a fringe point of view. It is shared by the Elizabeth Fry Society (which works with women in the justice system), the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, several women’s shelters and other groups that belong to an umbrella group called the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution. They don’t entirely agree with the proposed new law. But they are strong advocates of the so-called Nordic model, which holds that prostitution is a violation of women’s equality rights. The three prongs of the Nordic model are to criminalize the buyers of sex while decriminalizing the sellers, to help get women out of sex work (and prevent them from going in it in the first place), and to educate the public that prostitution is a form of violence against women.
Sweden, the most feminist country in the world, practises the Nordic model. How well it works is a matter of hot debate, but there’s persuasive evidence that it has indeed reduced the sex trade. I certainly prefer it to the German model, where legalized prostitution has exploded, women from Eastern Europe have flooded in to have high-volume sex in commercial brothels and men from all over the continent come for cheap weekend specials.
Abolishing the sex trade is impossible, of course. But there might be some virtue in turning it back into a vice. “Even my own people will say it’s the oldest job in the world,” says Ms. Audette. “And I’m like, come on. Does that mean we have to tolerate it and make it legal?”
For the sake of the women who’ve lived in the dark places in the alleys, she says not.