Has Ontario court ruling made life safer or riskier for Aboriginal sex workers?

A potentially divisive debate is underway among women’s advocates after a provincial court recently struck down some of the laws restricting prostitution in Canada. And as the Toronto Star‘s Antonia Zerbisias writes, “even Aboriginal women’s groups have clashed, not only with mainstream feminist activists but also with each other.”

On Sept. 28, 2010, in the case of Bedford v. Canada, Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court declared three sections of the Criminal Code unconstitutional (summarized here by Zerbisias):

  • Section 210, which prohibits maintaining, owning or being an “inmate” of a “common bawdy-house.” As a result, brothels will not be illegal.
  • Section 212(1)(j), which affects those living “wholly or in part on the avails of prostitution of another person.” With this struck down, prostitutes are able to support dependents.
  • Section 213(1)(c), best known as the “communicating law,” which prevents street prostitutes from screening clients before putting themselves at risk.

In a joint statement released the day after the decision by the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN) together with Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution and South Asian Women Against Male Violence, the authors asserted that the Ontario Court “abandons Aboriginal women and women of colour to pimps.”

Jeannette Corbiere Lavell is the President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. In a statement released by NWAC, she says

“The decision itself acknowledges systemic injustice but nowhere mentions the overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in the sex industry. This decision glosses over the fact that Aboriginal women, women in low income situations, those suffering from mental health and addictions issues are working in prostitution because of systemic racism and classism, as well as a fundamental power imbalance and issues of inequality, which is at the root of prostitution.”

But there have been Aboriginal voices raised in support of Justice Himel’s decision, most notably, the Native Youth Sexual Health Network. In a press release, the Network says that, while it agrees with NWAC that the Ontario judgment fails to address inequality and racism facing Aboriginal women, the ruling still “has the potential to actually mean less violence” for those women:

If sex workers are able to live off of the money they earn, they may be able to afford shelter, better provide for their families, or be able to hire someone else, such as a driver, as protection. If they are able to openly communicate about sex work, they may be able to negotiate safer working conditions (such as condom use) with a client or report violence without fear of being arrested. If keeping a bawdy-house is no longer illegal, then sex workers may have access to indoor working conditions, decreasing the chances of street-based violence. If police are given less opportunity to arrest people on the basis of these laws, it means less Indigenous people that are incarcerated because of sex work.

It seems pretty clear this is ultimately headed for the Supreme Court of Canada. But even they won’t necessarily end this debate, just as laws against prostitution have so far failed to end the practice.

Former sex trade workers (itself a contentious term in some circles) have taken passionate and compelling stands for and against the Himel decision, complicating matters further. And, to be perfectly honest, I’m currently on the fence over this one, as I try to wade through the claims and counterclaims made in the name of Aboriginal women (and some men) on this issue.

What about you? Have you made your mind up on this? In your opinion, has this Ontario court ruling made life safer or riskier for Aboriginal sex workers? I encourage you to share below.

10 thoughts on “Has Ontario court ruling made life safer or riskier for Aboriginal sex workers?

  1. On contact, First Nations had no word for prostitution. It was unknown. The white man brought prostution to First Nations women, just as he did small pox. The small pox has disppeared but prostitution flourishes. Both can kill bodies but the notion that prostitution, which is based on contempt for women in general and brown women in particular, is good and proper for any society is capable of sickening the entire society. And it is shocking to children, both boys and girls, when they first hear of it. And it was Thomas Paine in his book THE AGE OF REASON who warned that anything that shocks the heart of a child should give adults pause for reflection. Let us reflect upon the consequences of legalizing prostution long and hard. It is not a private transaction by two people. The entire society is in on it or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Women at risk need protection. Protection doesn’t consist of legalizing their risks, but in getting them safely into occupations that don’t trigger some men’s sadistic impulses. It means getting them enough money to live decently. It means a third wave of a women’s revolution.

  2. My mind’s made up, but your article only skims the dichotomous surface of the issue at hand.

    We’ve got to move away from the ‘laws-stayed-versus-laws-struck-down’ notion, and move closer to what the two sides are actually disagreeing on – which is essentially the decriminalization of pimps and johns. Both sides agree that it is absolutely necessary to decriminalize prostituted women. AWAN and others argue even further that prostituted women deserve exit strategies as part of an abolition model.

    Under all of this, lies a bigger issue: That prostitution is violence against women, and disproportionately exploits women, poor women, and women of colour. If we choose to accept it and normalize it as NYSHN suggests, we are agreeing to support and reinforce all of these inequalities. Prostitution is practice that exudes a culture in which men are socialized, encouraged, and now LEGALLY SANCTIONED to do with women as they please. So long as prostitution exists, women will never be safe – whether prostitutes are decriminalized or not.

    Sarah M Mah

    PS. Part marks. The term “sex worker” is not only contentious, but also wrong. Prostitution is violence against women, and being a recipient of male violence is not a job.

  3. Sarah, thanks for being part of the discussion and yes my post only skims the surface: thanks for contributing some layering.

    One way to help put the issue into focus for me is to ask: “All things being equal, how many women (or men) would undertake this sort of life if they did not have to for economic reasons?”

    My guess: very few, but the fact is, things AREN’T equal for everyone. Poverty, racism and other forms of inequality compel people to take up this life in many cases, dynamics that need to be front and center in any discussion of this question.

  4. That’s exactly it, Rick. Even more poignant would be to ask: is this something you’d want for your daughter? Do girls grow up, wanting prostitution. I would venture to say that in a society that normalizes the buying of women, we would be moving towards a world where girls – and certain girls, (poor, aboriginal and girls of colour) accept it as destiny.

    Prostitution is an extreme readout o fthe power dynamic between men and women, which is why I refuse to support it and the associated racism and economic abuses. It is not a gender-neutral issue either, and this is substantiated in the fact that by and large, women are the objects bought and sold, men are the buyers and sellers. We’d all be fooling ourselves to call this mere coincidence. Impossible to support gender equality and accept prostitution.

    My sincere regards for responding and taking a serious look at abolition, as more journalists ought to be doing.

  5. So why don’t we actually listen and learn from CURRENT sex workers? Haven’t we as Aboriginal people already felt the affects of what happens when people speak for us as opposed to asking us? Again I’m talking about CURRENT Aboriginal sex workers

  6. What is concerning about this issue, is that anything that is referenced as decriminalizing, legislating or the like, begins to sound too close like legitimizing what some identify as a ‘choice’ in terms of ‘sex work/trade’ for First Nations people. From an Anishinabe point of view, tradition, her-story (as in history), life path teachings of our legacy, pre-contact did not identify ‘sex work/trade’ as a choice in life. It is an impeding part of an experience as a result of colonization. Perfect contemporary case in point to highlight this, is the well known examination into the lives of First Nations children and youth by Cherry Kingsley and Melanie Marks called Sacred Lives Report, 2000. The document is a telling account of young First Nations people who have experienced sexual exploitation as a result of the sex trade and provides recommendations from the voices of those affected in a call to action declaration. One only has to read the document to understand that a future or continued future in the sex trade industry is not a viable choice for many of our people. And thus, compromises their holistic safety.

    This debate as it pertains to the First Nations context must acknowledge values and beliefs of First Nations people. Anything other will further enfranchise the rights of those it proposes to protect and the women this particular article addresses. We bring up the Sacred Lives Report because there is a transition in life stages where this issue is concerned, from which women learn from very harsh humble beginnings that the ‘sex trade’ may seem a choice. Do people really believe that adult First Nations women will be given the same service and equality on this issue if the sex trade is decriminalized? No matter where our people are, we all know there is a hierarchy based on discrimination, whether it be; on the streets, in brothels or in other means of the ‘work’. Decriminalizing would mean our women again would be further moved to a place where safety is a resource less afforded due to the complex social issues affecting them.

    Further to this, we believe it to be misleading to advocate a journey negating the inherent rights of First Nations women who experience the ‘sex trade’. It is misleading to promote a false empowerment in a structure that is anything but. It is misleading to promote safety in the guise of proposed best practices in terms of the ‘work’ which inevitably gives more power to the hierarchy that we as First Nations know well, which is systemic discrimination in all areas effecting our lives.

    With Respect,

    Lori Mainville – Winnipeg Community Member, Ojibway Grandmother, Independent Contractor, have worked on the issue of sexual exploitation since 1997.
    Lisa Michell – Winnipeg Community Member, Ojibway Grandmother, Chair of Women’s Memorial March of Manitoba 5th year 2011.

  7. All the evidence from countries that legalized prostitution demonstrates that it expanded markets for organized crime; instead of curbing violence, trafficking proliferated to meet the increased demand from legalization.

    One of the things renowned scholar Phil Williams discovered in his research on transnational criminal networks is that human trafficking for prostitution is an important component of organized crime portfolios, in some instances providing the seed money for other ventures in smuggling guns and drugs. With the foundation laid by proceeds from prostitution, their ability to corrupt public institutions, banks, and society at large is given an enormous boost.

    There is a reason why the United Nations, State Department, and Department of Justice have invested in fighting this crime against humanity; theoretical distinctions between prostitution and trafficking simply do not exist in the real world.

    As the property of one of the most savage criminal enterprises on the planet, the vast majority of prostitutes worldwide (including Europe and North America) are little more than brutalized slaves. Proponents of prostitution as “sex work” thus immerse themselves in promoting some very dangerous fairy tales about the industry.

    For readers who want the plain truth about prostitution and what can be done to stop this institutionalized violence against women and children, there are fortunately some trustworthy authorities who’ve actually produced solid research, rather than sugarcoated suppositions.

  8. but. prostitution is not about sex. it is about power, specifically the power that men exercise when they insists upon sexual access to the bodies of women and children. These men do, in fact, victimize the women and children they buy. or exacerbate their victimization (by a punitive harsh system).
    And you know what? Abolitionists DO talk to women who are in prostitution. I have over the years talked to hundreds. and they do not want to be in prostitution. Not one of these women has ever said to me, “i love my job” or any version thereof. oh. wait. one woman said she was excited by being in prostitution (she had started about three days previous). And, as Sarah said in an earlier post, no one wants this for their daughters. or mothers. or aunties. or friends. or….

    yep. your body belongs to you. It should not be violated, commodified, or cheapened by patriarchalcapitalism.
    I don’t think we’re so much demonstrating a ‘rescue mentality’ as insisting that we want women in prostitution to have real opportunities to get out, get beside each other and their allies and take the reins. legitmating the activities of pimps, procurers or johns gets in the way of that kind of collaboration.

  9. I’ve been interested in the First Nations experience of both the concept of prostitution, and it’s being a part of the society ,and therefore lives, of those who did not grow up with it in their culture. I appreciate the explanation. I am white, have been a part of the sex trade for about 30 years, and have only occasionally dealt with females of First Nations backgrounds, working in the industry. The idea of ‘would you want your children to grow up to be prostitutes?’, or- ‘did your daughter want to grow up to be a sex worker?’ seems to me to be an odd question. Certainly, where I grew up, there were no visible signs of prostitution, so I would never have expressed such an interest to an adult, plus, being a child ,why would I have any notion of sex,and sexual matters, and any thought that I could grow up to be something I have no reference point for………? Our society does not glamorize the notion of being a prostitute, therefore I did not attach any ambition or desire to such a role, or profession, once I was old enough to understand what it was……….. I would say that I did like the idea, as an adult, that I could be a more colourful character than a wife and mother, that I could wear sexier clothing, and that I could be considered racier, more fun, and more desirable than perhaps a nurse, teacher, or secretary. Those were the role models of my day, and they did little for me. I liked the concept of being a business woman of some type, and I also was heavily influenced by the arts, and drama. I love to ‘put on a show’ and make people relax and have fun, therefore this course was the one to take, for me. On the side of that equation/decision was the added adult recognition that being in ‘personal entertaining’ gave me the welcome opportunity to have a full and diverse sex life, without the burden of marriage,and kids, and a humdrum conventional life. My own situation of making an adult decision to, at least , try out the sex trade, when I was 23 years old, is worlds away from those who feel tricked or dragged into the business, or even forced, by economic circumstances……… Like everything out there , nothing is all bad, or all good. My life is rich and full, but not by many other peoples frame of reference……. There obviously are, out there, men who prey on prostitutes, or women who are alone, or women who are less fortunate, this is obvious with the serial killers we’ve been hearing about since ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s’ era of Victorian England. I’d like to see more work being done on why this kind of misogeny exists in our culture, and what sorts of attitudes, about sexuality and morality, bring about this extreme behavior towards women. Part of the reason that many prostitutes are murdered and disposed of , is because they can be, because men have access to them, and can spend time alone with them, with an offer of money. But there seems to be an added interest, on the part of brutal males, to be able to degrade, and beat ,and torture women who are attractive, available, and sexually appealing. The men I meet in my business are polite, gentlemanly, and considerate, and mostly revere women and appreciate being able to spend time with them. It is genuinely disturbing that not all men are like this, and alarming that many view the sex trade as a place to ‘hunt’ and potentially kill females… This observation does not make all men bad, just some of them………. Likewise,let us not judge those of us who love being courtesans, strippers, adult movie actresses, and erotic massage practitioners as ‘troubled’ simply because there are those out there who would ‘prey’ on some of us. We are not bad, useless, forgotten women, ………. but ARE sisters, daughters, mothers, who are on a different path, sometimes for only a short while, but living our lives, our way……..!

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