And so it comes to this: Girding my loins for a battle to stop sex work from being declared illegal in Canada. Good grief, my idealistic 30-year-old self would have been gob-smacked to hear she'd grown into a person holding the completely opposite view on prostitution.
It's a long story on how I got from there to here, and you can find more details here if you're curious. But the quick version is that for the last 17 years I've had the pleasure of getting to know many, many people who work in the business. Over time, I learned that my idealistic vision of a world where nobody would ever have to sell access to their bodies was in fact causing violence and suffering against the very people I wanted to help.
For people who share my opinion that the only way to end the violence is to ditch the country's harmful laws around adult, consensual sex work, today is a joyous day. The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the laws around keeping a common bawdy-house, living off the avails of prostitution (pimping), and communicating in public with clients. (CBC news story here.) Those laws have created huge risks for sex workers because they prohibit indoor workplaces and deny workers the protection of the police or the courts.
Whatever your views of sex work, know this: The laws we had weren't serving anyone. They increased the danger many times over for sex workers, but at the same time did nothing to prevent the visible problems of outdoor sex work that drive communities mad. Nor did they do anything to stop people from entering the sex trade, or curb the number of men buying it.
And even in communities where nobody was doing anything to enforce the laws against prostitution, those laws were still causing harm. They stigmatize and shame sex workers. They criminalize a sex worker's earnings even though the work is actually legal (it's just the marketing, location and earnings that have been illegal to this point). They leave sex workers to live in deathly fear that someone will find out what they do for a living, or used to do, because the shame is that deep and they know all too well that they could lose their house, their job, their family or their spouse if outed.
We're going to hear a lot over the next few days about why this court decision is the worst thing ever. For the sake of tens of thousands of consenting adult sex workers in Canada, please look for a wide variety of sources when informing yourself around this issue. Here's a great piece from April by Joyce Arthur to get you started.
The removal of these laws has not "ripped the lid" off prostitution or opened the way to the exploitation of children and vulnerable women. We will not see a huge increase in prostitution, because it already exists in every village, town and city in Canada and its growth is driven by market demand, not legality. Trafficking and child sexual exploitation rightly remain illegal. All that has happened is that we have thrown out three poorly considered and largely ignored laws that were inadvertently doing great harm to vulnerable women in particular.
So for those who believe in a safer world for everyone, this is a momentous day. But as I mentioned earlier, it's also a day for loin-girding against the next imminent threat on the horizon, that being indications that the Conservative government wants to declare the sale of sex illegal. At the party convention in early November, the party supported a motion to criminalize the sale of sex - which would be a first in Canada - and declares "that human beings are not objects to be enslaved, bought or sold."
You can't argue with the passion of the motion. But the reality of it would be disastrous. No country in the history of the world has ever eradicated sex work through criminalization. For better or worse, the human drive for pleasure has created a vigorous market for sex work. All that legal sanctions do is force the industry into the shadows. And as we know so well in B.C., bad things happen in dark places.
Were the government to declare the sale of sex illegal, there would be no legal ground to stand on when fighting for the right to safer working conditions. Such a change simply can't be allowed, or all the halting gains for sex workers will be lost in an instant and we'll be back to working conditions that practically invite predators to target vulnerable women right under our moral noses.
So those of us who believe in safer work places for sex workers are now going to have to fight against the criminalization of sex work, which will almost certainly be the Conservative government's response to this court ruling. We are not done yet.
Still, what a development! I fear the loss of support from those who are almost there on the issue of safer work places, but won't be able to stomach a fight to stop sex work from being declared criminal. Can we agree that human beings are not objects to be enslaved, bought or sold, but that paid sex between consenting adults is something else entirely?
This will certainly be a fight that will push everyone into their corners. Those of us who feel strongly about this issue will have to be the boldest, most confident versions of ourselves in the midst of what will undoubtedly be a no-holds-barred attack by some feminist movements and women's groups that will denounce us as apologists for the men who buy sex and victimizers of women.
But surely we've got today to celebrate. Today is for the winners. Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, Valerie Scott - I am clapping loudly, and it's all for you, the advocacy groups and other sex workers who stood beside you, and the lawyers who helped make your compelling case. It's never easy to be brave, but your courage has changed history.