In Meghan Murphy’s Globe and Mail op-ed of June 3rd, A prostitution solution: Outlaw the customers, not the hookers, she presents what is often referred to as the Swedish or Nordic model of legislation — removing penalties for those who sell sex but prosecuting the buying of it — as a compromise between the arguments for criminalization and those for legalization of sex work. Ironically, she phrases this as decriminalization, when it’s actually more of a lateral or distal form of criminalization… but one which still retains the pressure on sex workers to avoid the law and live in marginal circumstances.
Murphy’s argument is in support of that of the not so neutrally named Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, and ignores several issues that exist with the Swedish approach. The argument is often advanced by groups that see abolition as an ultimate objective, and it’s a curious anomaly in feminist discourse, where a woman’s right to choice and bodily autonomy is held as paramount, and yet a loud faction makes an exception when that choice is one of opting to sell sex. But whether abolition is the preferable goal is besides the point.
The argument also overlooks issues raised by Justice Susan Himel in her Ontario Superior Court ruling, which has led to the case currently facing the Supreme Court of Canada. But Bedford v. Canada will only decide on the existing laws, not what the legislation should be, so that too is besides the point for this discussion.
The idea of criminalizing buyers only is seductive, but the practical reality is that when buyers of commercial sex are criminalized, sex workers’ livelihoods become dependent on a targeted group, one which they would endanger, if they work openly. Whether they are directly subject to arrest or not, sex workers will still need to work in the shadows, and will still be targeted by legal authorities as a means of locating their customers. And because laws criminalizing the purchase of sex will require evidence of a transaction, it’s naive to believe that sex workers won’t be negatively embroiled in the enforcement of the law. Where the Nordic model is legislated, sex workers work in increasing isolation, report that accessing assistance is difficult (and requires playing along with a system that treats them as victims needing rescue, whether or not that is the case), and reports the Swedish approach’s merits have had to rely on badly collected data.
Part of the problem is that we’re talking about diverse realities. Street work is not stripping is not escorting is not porn is not Craigslist is not erotic massage. Sex work also differs by region, and the motives for engaging in it vary considerably as well, from exploitation (which is a far less frequent occurrence than is portrayed, but does happen) and poverty to a pragmatic sense of opportunity. Any approach to laws pertaining to sex work absolutely needs the input of a diversity of people directly engaged in it, and should be informed by all of these experiences, with an end objective being to minimize harm.
In the late 1980s, I did street work (as male). In 2005, when I started my transition to female and was let go from my job for a period of time, I went into escorting (as trans female), to make ends meet. The two experiences were very different in many ways, but what I most noticed was the level of agency and self-determination I had. If street work (during a volatile time of my life) were my only experience, I might be tempted to support interventionism and Swedish-style laws, but being able to compare and contrast that with my second experience has changed my perspective. And quite frankly, I found some of my experiences in traditional workplaces far more exploitative and demoralizing than escorting.
First and foremost, sex workers need the empowerment, autonomy and agency to determine their surroundings, have recourse when things go bad, and live without fear of arrest and harassment. And regardless of whether they want to leave sex work, or practice it in *relative* safety, they should be able to do so without the legal and social structures being an impediment.
Nothing is ever ideal or perfect. All we can reasonably do is give people the tools to control their destinies, and assurance of safety and equal support and respect from health and enforcement services if something goes wrong.
And from my experiences, I can’t see how criminalizing the buyers won’t still drive the whole industry underground.
(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)