Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada

Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada

Editors: Emily van der Meulen, Elya M. Durisin, and Victoria Love
Publisher: Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2013. 349p.
Reviewer: Annette Jolin | November 2013

In Canada, as in most Western countries, prostitutes are considered to be victims, not workers. Problems associated with prostitution are seen as involving drugs, crime, and enslavement, not ordinary working conditions. The authors in this carefully constructed anthology argue that the time has come to replace this view with a perspective that accepts prostitution as work. Theirs is not a happy hooker account; they depict the sometimes grim realities of sex work accurately but also offer many suggestions about how to think more helpfully about prostitution.

The current paradigm that prostitution represents violence towards women has its origins in the 20th century women’s movement, which managed to shift moral censure from women who sell sex to men who buy it. Women who work in the sex trade are no longer whores but victims of male violence in need of rescue, not condemnation. This concept of prostitution has become firmly established in the past forty years and is widely accepted by academics, politicians, and the public. There were always dissenters, however, primarily off-street sex workers who did not see themselves as victims of an institution they relied on for their living. But, because of their socially tainted status and associated powerlessness, their views were largely ignored until the Bedford v. Canada (2010) case, and now the publication of this book called attention to their concerns.

Collectively, the contributors to Selling Sex—activists, sex workers, and researchers–challenge many of the essential assumptions, facts, and policies of those who believe that prostitution is inherently violent and must be abolished. They propose that we re-think, re-name, and re-address prostitution. Central to their argument is the premise that, because the prostitute-as-victim view is ideologically driven and empirically flawed, the resultant distorted picture of prostitution has produced policies and laws which increase rather than decrease sex workers’ exposure to violence and harm.  

In 2009 three Canadian sex workers, Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott retained attorney Alan Young (the author of the book’s Afterword) to argue that three provisions in Canada’s prostitution law increased the risk of violence to sex workers.  Even though prostitution is legal in Canada, these three provisions—communicating for the purpose of prostitution, living on the earnings of a prostitute, and “keeping a bawdy house”—are criminal offenses.  Each of these, the constitutional challenge argues, limits sex workers’ ability to carry out the legally sanctioned sale of sex in a safe and secure manner.  An Ontario trial court agreed with the argument in Bedford v. Canada (2010 ONSC 4264).  The Ontario government appealed, with mixed results. One of the trial court’s rulings was overturned, one was amended, and the third was upheld. The trial court’s decriminalization of the ‘communication’ law was over-ruled. The law pertaining to ‘living on the earnings of a prostitute’ was tightened to apply to exploitative relationships only; thus a driver or body guard employed by a sex worker is no longer subject to criminal prosecution. The ‘bawdy house’ ruling was upheld on the grounds that criminalizing the indoor sale of sex forces sex workers out onto the street. These rulings were challenged by Canada’s Attorney General in 2012. The case is now in the hands of the Canadian Supreme Court.

While laws are subject to litigation, attitudes are not. Since attitudes generally precede laws, however, a good part of this book is devoted to a thorough analysis of the attitudes shaping current laws. Pejorative attitudes toward prostitution have deep cultural roots that have given expression to a variety of forms of condemnation. Sex work has been denounced on moral grounds, as a threat to public health and public safety, as a public nuisance, and most recently as an inherent form of violence against women. This applies to many street prostitutes. As a group they are most likely to have experienced childhood abuse, entered prostitution at a young age, become drug or alcohol dependent, and to have been exploited and mistreated by johns, authorities, pimps, and traffickers. Many of their stories are terrible. Most egregious were the murders of twenty-seven mostly Aboriginal sex workers in Vancouver, B.C. between the 1980s and 2002. The women’s deaths prompted activists and researchers to take a close look at the links between street prostitution and violence. Their findings are essential elements in the Bedford v. Canada (2010) case.  

It is said that bad data make bad law. Good data about prostitution are not easy to come by. Illegality and stigma make it impossible to create samples representing everyone who makes money by selling sex. Off-street sex workers are underrepresented because they are not easily located; and even when they are identified they are not convinced that participating in research is worth the risk of criminal prosecution. On-street sex workers, on the other hand are easily found. They work in settings known to law enforcement officers, social service workers, and to nearly every cab driver in town. Furthermore, because of their exposure to criminal victimization and illegal drugs, many street workers’ identities are captured in public records readily available to researchers and other interested parties. Thus it is the street prostitute’s story which becomes the public face of sex work. The contributors to this book point out that if the stories of the remaining eighty percent of sex workers were to round out this picture, the public face of sex work would change dramatically. So would attitudes and laws if reason, rather than ideology, were to prevail.

In light of the data collection limitations noted above, Selling Sex does a remarkable job of making visible the wide range of experiences that are omitted from the conventional story of prostitution. We learn, for example, that as a group, off-street sex workers—women and men—see themselves as workers and not as victims. They are convinced that the risks inherent in their work can be better managed with workplace regulations than with criminal sanctions. They also believe that, over time, the stigma of sex work will be reduced when their way of making a living is regarded as income-producing work rather than a threat to social stability. They understand that sex work is not for everyone and, even for those who are actively involved, it is important to devise ways that can ease their transition into more mainstream employment.

As with any collection of writings, there are differences in style and substance in this volume. The reader encounters the occasional use of jargon and sometimes overly critical assessments of alternative views. In an otherwise important and groundbreaking book these are relatively minor distractions, however. Despite a rather strict adherence to Canadian data and laws, the theoretical and policy implications are relevant to everyone who cares about the humane and respectful treatment of sex workers wherever they work and whoever they are.

Annette Jolin is a Professor Emeritus from Portland State University. She has a Ph.D. in Urban Studies & Criminology

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