Feminists split over judicial decision overturning some legal restraints on prostitution
TheStar.com – News/Insight
Published On Sat Oct 09 2010. By Antonia Zerbisias, Feature Writer
Canadian feminism is a bawdy house divided.
In the aftermath of last month’s landmark court decision that lifts the barriers to free trade in the sex trade, women’s rights activists are facing off.
They’re split over whether the ruling will make sex workers safer — or merely pump up profits for pimps and help organized crime to traffic women.
Examples of the divide?
“It is with stupefaction and anger that feminists have learned of the ruling,” the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres said in a media release.
“Worldwide, it is impoverished brown women whose bodies are being bought and sold,” argued the South Asian Women Against Male Violence (SAWAMV) in its statement. “This decision is not what we or our sisters want.”
And from the opposing corner?
“It’s wonderful that the court has recognized the harm of the laws, and has freed sex workers from the threat of criminal prosecution,” said the Pivot Legal Society, which has been fighting in the B.C. courts to overturn the country’s prostitution laws.
At the heart of this dispute is a wide ideological gap between feminists who believe that no woman is a commodity to be bought and sold and those who insist that, as with abortion, a woman has the right to control her body — while not risking life and limb.
That’s why Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court struck down as unconstitutional the bawdy house provision, which, arguably, by preventing sex workers from sharing premises, increased their risk of exposure to violence. Gone, too, is the “living off the avails” section, which criminalizes those being supported by a sex worker. While that was meant to target pimps, it also affects a prostitute’s live-in family, including partners, parents and adult children, as well as security guards who might protect her.
Also declared unconstitutional is the communication law, which experts say put street sex workers in the greatest danger because it did not allow them to safely screen “dates” before jumping into their cars.
“That’s a huge step forward,” says B.C. sex worker rights activist Tamara O’Doherty. “There used to be this idea we have to criminalize sex workers for their own good. So we (with opposing views on the court decision) do have this partly common ground.”
But there isn’t much of it.
“For me it’s not complicated to understand why there’s a divide: it’s two visions,” says Diane Matte of Montreal’s Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation.
Matte has a street-level view of the industry, and says it isn’t a pleasant sight.
That makes it difficult for her to understand why feminists would support the victorious plaintiffs — members of the Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC) — in the Ontario constitutional challenge.
“The SPOC women do not hide the fact that they want to open brothels,” Matte notes. “In other words, they want to prostitute other women. Why is that okay?
“I’m sorry, but why should I, as a feminist, support that a woman wants to sell another woman? And that doesn’t even look at the question of why men should have the right to buy women — and children — whenever and wherever they want. That’s why it’s impossible to reconcile these two visions.”
What abolitionists such as Matte want is to follow the so-called Nordic Model, one in operation in Iceland and Sweden, which has decriminalized sex workers while criminalizing their clients.
Others don’t buy that solution.
“As a criminologist I can guarantee you that that doesn’t work because it doesn’t remove the criminal element from prostitution,” says O’Doherty, who teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley.
Making demand illegal, she says, only serves to drive sex workers underground.
Still, abolitionists believe that demand can be legislated out of existence.
“I don’t see sex work as natural or inevitable; it’s a practice we have constructed,” says Suzanne Jay of the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution. “We can dismantle it and create another system of relationships.”
Even aboriginal women’s groups have clashed, not only with mainstream feminist activists but also with each other.
Ironically, all the parties cite B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims, many of whom were aboriginal, as the rationale for the positions they hold. And they worry about how many indigenous women are in prison for prostitution-related charges after walking the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in search of a quickie for a quick fix.
“What we see with total decriminalization is the state, the Canadian government, legalizing men’s right to buy women,” says Cherry Smiley of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network. “The women that I have talked to, women who have been prostituted, call it paid rape. The state is now sanctioning paid rape.”
Meanwhile, Jessica Yee, executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, welcomes the decision “100 million per cent.”
“I am indigenous, I have done sex work, I am the daughter of an indigenous sex worker,” she says. Yee adds that, had decriminalization happened years ago, her mother would not have been subjected to violence — not just from clients, but also from police.
Yee resents how “the high-class-hooker, white-whore-power” side has appropriated aboriginal women’s issues to make its case.
But she has even greater scorn for abolitionist feminists.
“The anti-side, the paternalistic side, uses us to push their ‘saving women’ agenda because they say things like, ‘Well this decision does not help street-involved.’ If they really did support street-involved indigenous women, they would support the decriminalization of prostitution.”
Even more concerned are groups that represent Asian women.
According to Jay, studies show that there is a much higher trafficking of Asian women than any other ethnic group. They end up in brothels and massage parlours, often heavily into debt and the sole source of support for families back home.
“This is going to have a devastating effect on women who have been trafficked into prostitution,” says Jay. “There’s a great possibility that this will be the only way for Asian women to arrive in Canada, outside of marriage.”
But, as Judge Himel pointed out, there are many laws to deal with trafficking and other crimes associated with prostitution. For example, pimps can be charged with extortion, assault, forcible confinement and/or torture.
The problem with that, say the decision’s critics, is that the burden of proof lies with the victim, who may not be in a position to press her case against a pimp or organized crime.
Himel also demolished the Crown’s “expert” testimony, most of which came from abolitionist feminists, calling it “inflammatory” and “misleading,” as well as legally sub-substandard.
“The abolitionist approach is not evidence-based,” says Vancouver women’s rights advocate Joyce Arthur. “It’s mostly coming from an ideological and emotional viewpoint. They rely on personal anecdotes of survival by sex workers who do have horror stories of what it’s like on the street and extrapolate it to all women to say they are all victims of violence, all exploited.
“It’s a double standard, a paternalistic view that women have to be protected from themselves,” continues Joyce, who says she used to hear the same arguments from other feminists when she was a topless dancer. “It’s very insulting.”
Still, Matte rejects the idea that those who want to abolish prostitution are fighting a losing battle.
To her, prostitution is the defining issue for feminists.
“Fighting the sex industry is complicated,” she concedes. “But if you don’t start somewhere, it’s sure that you won’t end prostitution. For me, as a long-time feminist, if we had once decided that we couldn’t win against patriarchy or against violence, we wouldn’t be very far today.
“You have to believe that change is possible.”
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