by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
The conversation around prostitution in Canada is a live one these days with Bedford v. Canada now being considered by the Supreme Court. Last week on Facebook I posted a link to Julia Beazley’s op-ed in the National Post’s full comment section, saying “Glad to hear a much more nuanced voice on this.”
The funny thing is that I second-guessed myself as I posted it, knowing that some of my friends would take issue with it. Prostitution is a choice, they would say. Don’t interfere with a woman’s right to choose. And yet, it seems to me an elite perspective that chooses to ignore the complex social and economic issues that entrap many prostituted women:
The issues are complex. I certainly haven’t put all the pieces together. But what is the master narrative here? What are the key drivers? Are they classist? racist? sexist? Solid arguments can be made for all three.
During the fall of 2012, I spent every Monday evening as part of a learning cohort looking into the complex issues surrounding prostitution in the city of Vancouver. We looked at numerous issues, and heard numerous stories of (and from) women who have been deeply affected by the commercial sex trade in this city and beyond.
What I failed to hear from folks like Cherry Smiley – a Nlaka’pamux (Thompson) and Dine’ (Navajo) woman who speaks regularly on the issue of violence against women – was that this issue could be reduced to freedom of choice. Smiley is a co-founder of Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry, a volunteer group fighting for the abolition of prostitution.
They are fighting this fight for numerous reasons, not least of which is the disproportionate number of Indigenous women involved in survival sex work. Could it be, Smiley asks, that this has something to do with our country’s colonialist history, including but certainly not limited to the impact of residential schools?
The challenge is this. The vast majority of women do not choose sex work. To say that they do is to ignore the systems of violence and oppression that lead most women into the sex trade. Call it patriarchy, or just call it good capitalism, the reality is that so many of those involved in the sex trade here in Vancouver are here due to a) poverty; b) abuse; c) racial oppression.
To suggest that because some of the women involved in the trade have chosen this profession (or, perhaps, somehow made their way to the top and are now running other girls) should not denigrate the need for a significant redress of the wrongs being done by the oppressor (i.e. the pimps, johns, etc.) who are consumers of sex, and perpetuating a culture of male violence against women.
Where I think I disagree with my friend, and their particular view is around the agency of the majority of women engaged in sex work. The perspective of choice, is, I suggest, rooted in some versions of feminism – but no doubt a co-opted, middle-class feminism that – has become complacent with its achievements.
The radical feminist approach that argues for something resembling the Nordic Model – focusing on the criminalisation of the Pimps and Johns – also argues for the decriminalization of women in the trade in order to provide them protection.
But the Nordic model has arisen in Scandinavian countries where there is much more equal representation and treatment of women in society. We have a long way to go on that front in Canada, and I wonder if our own approach to prostitution doesn’t suffer from this imbalance.
We lament and rail against the factories in Bangladesh that led (and continue to lead) to the death of thousands. To say that the workers have a right to choose whether or not to work in these factories is a false statement.
The economics of oppression, patriarchy, and colonialism have provided these “opportunities” to garment workers in the majority world. Because I have the opportunity to “choose my career path” in Canada, does not mean that the people of Bangladesh (or Cambodia, or Thailand, or China…) have the same choice. They have choices, yes, but they are restricted by particular systems of economic oppression foisted upon them by us.
As a person of privilege, I can assume that others have the choice. I can buy garments at a really cheap price from H&M or Joe or whatever. I have that opportunity, and I have that choice. But I, the consumer, am the problem. I’m the oppressor. We shouldn’t criminalize the garment workers, but we sure as hell should do something about the Factory Owners and people who consume the products of slavery.
In the same way, to suggest that we should make choices based on the “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” motif is false. There are some days where people of privilege should actually limit their “freedoms” for the sake of the majority who suffer oppression at the hands of such freedom of choice.