Brothel Legalization: “Is Sex Work?”

While sex work might be interpreted by some as a derailment from moral femininity, I believe that the real issue is that patriarchal structures of oppression inevitably ‘force’ women to use their bodies as commodities and sexual gratification as a service. Until underlying social issues are addressed, sex work can only be understood as “perennial gang rape” of women in systems of male dominance.

The criminalization of sex work is unconstitutional. At least, that is the stance that the Ontario Court of Appeal took on March 26th when it lifted the ban on brothel operation. Under the pretense of safety, the court ruled that criminalizing sex work places workers at risk of violence and abuse. Dominatrix Terri Jean Bedford, whose ‘bondage bungalow’ north of Toronto was raided by the police, and former prostitute Valerie Scott agree. For both, safety in sex work is concomitant with workers exiting the streets.

In Canada, prostitution has never been illegal per se. The workers and the sex industry have been criminalized through sub-sections making them vulnerable to charges of communicating for the purposes of prostitution (section 213), prohibition of common bawdy houses (section 212), and procuring/living off the avails of prostitution (section 212). It is section 212 that the ruling directly addressed. Under this new ruling, sex workers are no longer punishable by summary conviction for being a part of a common house that is occupied or resorted to by one or more persons, for the purposes of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency (section 197).

This landmark ruling by Ontario’s top court means that rules against profiting from prostitution apply only in ‘circumstances of exploitation’ and the police are now an active agent in the prosecution of violent and coercive pimps. Soliciting for the purposes of selling sex remains an illegal act since the Prime Minister fears that “prostitution is bad for society and harmful to communities, women and vulnerable persons”. Both sides have 60 days to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Central to this ruling remains an unanswered question: “is sex work”? In rendering its decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal accepts it as so and hence, under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms must protect the workers’ right to security. While I have a hard time conceptualizing sex as work, under this reasoning the ruling is well founded. Yet, in accepting sex as work, we are making bold international claims about our societal views of the female body and of sexuality.

The bartering of sex as a legitimate means of employment removes sex from the private realm and redefines it as a service; a shift that destabilizes distinctions between the private-public realm. Not only does sex become a commodity and thus a legitimate means of employment, but also the female body is consequently objectified. Yet, amidst a growing poverty rate and disparity between male and female rates of pay, is the choice of entering sex work a gendered means of survival? In Canada alone, about half of Canadian women are involved in non-standard labour arrangements, most of which are composed of part-time employment. Globalization has grafted women onto the maintenance of household economies without providing them with adequate labor opportunities. Sexualized commerce in this sense can only be viewed as a survival strategy, or what radical feminists have coined as ‘desperation sex’. When poverty is added as an aggravating factor, the ruling becomes a band-aid solution to a broader social problem.

Nadine Vasconcelos

@airesxo

Nadine has been a Christian since 2009 and is a graduate from the Criminology program at York University. She spent her last year tackling issues surrounding female criminality, and delving into Aboriginal rights in Canada. She is headed to law school in the Fall of 2012, and hopes to pursue a career in International Human Rights Law or Legal Scholarship. She spends her time traveling the world any chance she gets, and has recently began learning how to play the guitar.

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