CARCERAL FEMINISM: THE FAILURE OF SEX WORK PROHIBITION

by Robyn Maynard, FUSE Magazine 35-3 ABOLITION

Anti-prostitution women’s groups — comprised of women morally and politically opposed to the very existence of the sex trade — have a far-reaching influence in the Canadian political climate that can be traced back to the colonization of Canada. While these groups often promote themselves as advancing an abolitionist feminist agenda, prohibitionist feminism is a more accurate descriptor, and will be used throughout this essay. [1] In the present writing, I will argue that the strategies of prohibitionist feminists do not serve the health and well-being of sex workers, but actually result in the criminalization of the very people they purport to protect. In contrast, the arguments in this essay promote a model of solidarity with sex workers, in support of their own movements for health, security and dignity within the sex trade.

Sex workers are marginalized in Canadian society — they face staggering rates of violence and stigmatization that affect their ability to access health, social and protective services, and many (especially street- based workers) are subject to heavy police repression. Trans*, racialized, and Indigenous sex workers, as well as sex workers who use drugs, face these forms of marginalization at an even higher level, and experience higher levels of policing and incarceration. This reality is largely acknowledged by sex work activists and by most prohibitionists. [2] The issue that divides sex work activists from prohibitionists is the determination of the necessary steps to abolish violence towards sex workers. Prohibitionists believe that sex work, in and of itself, is inherently violent and exploitative, and propose instead that a carceral, prohibitionist approach must be taken to eliminate sex work itself. This model runs contrary to struggles for labour rights, migrants rights, decriminalization and self-determination which are currently being waged by sex work activists, as the means to end the high rates of violence and repression in the industry. As sex work in Canada is currently under intense public scrutiny, as well as political and legal upheaval, it is a feminist issue of the utmost importance, with high stakes in terms of the lives and safety of sex workers. Sex workers’ voices are not always represented in these debates; however, organizations run by and for sex workers such as POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work, Educate, Resist) and legal allies such as the Pivot Legal Society have produced a wealth of information giving space for sex workers to describe their realities and needs. This information was assembled as part of sustained efforts by sex workers to prioritize their voices in the public domain as the pressure has mounted in the highly mediatized societal debates surrounding their work. Given this context, it is more necessary than ever to demonstrate how prohibitionist feminism’s align- ment with the moral right’s carceral approach to sex work in Canada results in significant harm to sex workers’ safety and autonomy. Indeed, much stands to be gained by redefining a truly abolitionist feminism with the goal of abolishing violence against sex workers, in solidarity with the safety, needs and self-determination of sex workers themselves.

 

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