Analysis: What is Canada to do about its sex trade?

by Melissa Martin

Nikki Thomas

[Nikki Thomas]

THE spotlight swings around and the debate, once hushed, grows loud: What happens to sex work in Canada now?

There’s only one thing everyone knows for sure. “The public does not want to see any more bodies in pig farms,” said Nikki Thomas, executive director of the Sex Professionals of Canada. No more Picktons and no more exploitative pimps. But how best to stop the violence?

This is where the dialogue, even in exclusively feminist circles, suddenly diverges. Split into passionate but incompatible paths it goes: abolitionists on one side and the sex-worker rights advocates on the other.

Generally, abolitionists consider sex work inherently exploitative and find the answer in seeking to end it entirely. “Our feminist plan is to identify prostitution and trafficking as violence against women,” declares Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, a self-declared abolitionist collective, on its website. “When we see prostitution as violence, it is clear that we should simultaneously make it illegal for anyone to profit from prostituting others.”

On the flip side, sex-worker rights advocates point to the fact customers are already pressured under current anti-prostitution laws — and, they say, it hasn’t appeared to deter violence against vulnerable members of the sex trade. Instead, rights advocates call for an entirely new approach, one that would legitimize the profession while strengthening safeguards to protect children and those forced into sexual slavery. After all, they point out, many empowered men and women choose to sell sex of their own free will.

“The best solution would to provide some sort of regulatory system that allows people the freedom to choose… with a little bit of oversight to ensure that everyone is doing so legally and everyone is of age,” said Thomas, who started her own journey in sex work four years ago. “I do think it would be possible to make this job as safe as any other form of employment.”

Across the world, governments have gingerly picked their way forward on the issue of sex work. But no one approach has completely paved the way. In the Netherlands, sex work is legal and regulated. But the country is also one of the top destinations for human traffickers, and the last decade saw the sex-work industry increasingly infiltrated by criminal gangs, which push women and children into sex work.

In Sweden, a 1999 law cast sex workers as victims and criminalized the purchase of sex; it enjoys high public support and versions of the law later spread to Norway and Iceland. This “Nordic model” proved the inspiration for Winnipeg Tory MP Joy Smith’s petition to the House of Commons. But many critics allege the law has done nothing to alleviate the stigma that forces some street-involved sex workers into vulnerable situations.

In Canada, most sex-worker rights advocates point to New Zealand, where a 2003 bill largely decriminalized sex work, legitimized contracts between sex workers and clients and put sex work under the umbrella of workplace health and safety laws.

So which way will Canada go? And how will it unfold? Whatever happens, Thomas knows one thing: Somewhere along the way, the Canadian public will need to take a long look at sex work and the diversity of stories therein. “We’re mothers, we’re daughters, we’re fathers, we’re sons,” Thomas said. “Everybody in the industry has some sort of story about their lives and everybody has a different reason for getting involved in the trade… what we’re trying to do is increase visibility.”