Decriminalizing sex work is a better solution

Op-eds Opinions

A response to “It’s time to legalize prostitution in Canada”

Stock photo accessed via Pixabay.

It’s not time to legalize prostitution in Canada. It’s time to listen to what sex-workers’ rights groups are saying.

And these groups, such as The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, PIVOT Legal Society, and PACE Society, are saying they favour decriminalization. Why? What is so bad about legalization?

Legalization infringes on sex workers’ autonomy. According to the Canadian HIV/AIDs Legal Network, legalization leads to strong regulations which can be “abusive” and overbearing. These regulations enforce strict codes of conduct relating to sexual health, how much a worker can charge, and more. Sex workers such as the anonymous “Molly Smith,”wrote in The New Republic in 2015 that these regulations hamper sex workers’ safety and freedom and create a bureaucratic environment. She personally advocates for decriminalization.  

Contrary to legalization, decriminalization involves repealing criminal provisions against sex work. It allows sex workers to retain power, rather than giving it up to a third party. This means that sex workers can decide how long they work, for whom, with whom, where, and for how much. It affords sex workers agency, something criminalization and legalization do not.

Legalization would perpetuate the over-policing of Indigenous communities, im/migrant communities, and trans communities.

And despite what abolitionist activists argue, decriminalization does not entail the removal of criminal provisions against trafficking, sex slavery, and underage sex work. Though Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), introduced extra-criminal provisions against trafficking and exploitation specific to sex work, it did not protect sex workers themselves. Instead, it universalized experiences of sex trafficking and slavery. It framed sex workers as victims of violence and invalidated sex work as a legitimate form of labour. Many experts acknowledge that PCEPA is bad for sex workers and does not adequately deal with problems of trafficking and slavery.

PCEPA also ensures more regulation, oversight, and policing. It continues the antagonistic relationship between police and sex workers.

The thing is, legalization does this, too.

To highlight this, I’ll use the example of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. The Dutch government has cops monitoring the district at all hours. Though some sex workers in the Red Light District may find this to be a benefit, the police are not always a welcome presence in sex-worker communities. Especially since sex-worker communities contain many marginalized individuals from already over-policed communities. Legalization would perpetuate the over-policing of Indigenous communities, im/migrant communities, and trans communities. When we factor in the disproportionate incarceration rates of the aforementioned groups, as well as the current mass deportations and im/migration crises in North America, legalization could pose a major threat to sex workers.

In conjunction with sex workers, lawmakers should repeal laws that endanger and over-police sex workers.

Legalization would not only perpetuate a culture of surveillance but also a culture of competition. According to Mariska van Huissteden, in concentrated locales such as the Red Light District, sex workers must compete for clients to pay the astronomical rent for the rooms they use for sex work. Some of them are working 16-hour days to afford this. If the government allows sex workers to determine the location of their work, be it a bawdy house, hotel, or their own private residence, we remove the added financial strain that may come from a district designated for sex work.

So how can decriminalization of sex work avoid the problems that are presented with legalization?

By letting sex workers decide what works for them on an individualized basis while prioritizing legal rights and occupational health.

The Canadian Alliance of Sex Work Law Reform outlines what decriminalization can and should entail in their document, “Safety, Dignity, Equality: Recommendations for Sex Work Law Reform in Canada.” The Alliance recommends a “holistic” approach that  emphasizes the protection and autonomy of sex workers. The approach must address the many legal departments that many sex workers grapple with, such as Immigration Law, law pertaining to Indigenous peoples, and Labour Law. In conjunction with sex workers, lawmakers should repeal laws that endanger and over-police sex workers and create ones that maximize autonomy and recognize the identity of the individuals engaging in sex work.

Sex workers need to be at the forefront of the discussion about legalization and decriminalization. We need to let sex workers speak for themselves. Sex-workers’ rights groups are asking for decriminalization and we need to listen.