Kerry Porth: Why feminism must include the fight for sex workers' rights

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      By Kerry Porth

      Fuelled by male transgressions and the unrelenting harms issuing from the White House by an oppressive U.S. president, the 2018 Women’s March once again boasted an inspiring show of force last month. Millions attended marches across North America, defiantly calling out the injustices, oppression, and patriarchal systems underpinning them.

      But what was markedly different this year in many cities was the focus on intersectionality and a recognition of the need to centre the most marginalized voices to truly represent the diversity and inclusion this movement seeks to embrace.

      In Vancouver, a local trans sex worker, Hailey Heartless, underscored the need to include sex workers and the trans community as integral parts of the women’s movement.

      We could not agree more, and believe that for feminism to truly embody the spirit of empowerment and liberation it must not only include, but also work to amplify the voices of sex workers and those fighting to make the profession safe.

      Feminism requires listening to women and empowering them to name their experiences on their own terms. It means respecting their views with regard to the policies and positions that have direct bearing on their health and safety. The majority of sex workers, and research, agree that decriminalization would improve the health outcomes of those in the profession.

      At its core, feminism is about supporting women's choices and control over their bodies. If feminism supports women's reproductive choices, and their choice to have sex (or not) with whomever they choose, an exchange of money should have no bearing on this.

      Sex workers are experts at negotiating sexual consent, however, their ability to do so is seriously compromised by criminalization of their work and workplaces. Criminalization of the purchase of sex has led to rushed transactions on the street, as clients fear detection by law enforcement. This limits the ability of sex workers to properly screen clients and therefore increases their vulnerability to violence or exploitation. Criminalization of advertising and communication has also made negotiating with clients and screening more difficult.

      Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminism (SWERF) pushes a reductive and oppressive view of sex work that wrongly suggests that all sex workers are women and all clients are men. These same feminists also advance a narrative that sex work is a form of violence against women in and of itself, regardless of the circumstances in which it takes place, what the sex worker says about their own experience, and whether sex workers’ identify violence or exploitation taking place.

      SWERFs reject the voices of actual sex workers who attempt to provide a more nuanced picture of their own. They do not create space for sex workers to define their own experience, especially if it doesn't fit within the narrow parameters defined by this particular feminist worldview. This silencing of voices is contrary to fundamental feminist principles of empowerment and agency. With ironically patriarchal arrogance, these radical feminists are saying they know better than the individuals actually living the experience of sex work.

      They are the ones pushing criminalization in the form of the Nordic Model, which purports to "decriminalize" the selling of sexual services while criminalizing clients who purchase it. But an overwhelming volume of evidence shows that criminalization at both ends of the transaction is harmful to sex workers. Proponents of the Nordic Model fail to provide evidence to support their claims and instead rely on lurid, voyeuristic testimony from individuals who were trafficked or were exploited as youth—in other words, those who could never be characterized as having engaged in sex work.

      SWERFs deliberately conflate sex work with human trafficking, arguing that decriminalization would increase trafficking despite evidence to the contrary. Sex workers actually wish to be allies in the fight against trafficking and the exploitation of youth in commercial sex, and they are best positioned to do this; however, sex workers who support decriminalization are not seen as advancing one of the key antitrafficking solutions, which they are.

      Peter Kim

      Sex work is work, and must be seen as a valid income-generating activity; but in a criminalized context, the industry and those within it have no recourse to labour protections, including unionization, WorkSafe B.C., and employment standards. Surely, SWERFs can get behind the idea that all workers, including sex workers, deserve employment protections and equality—one of the earliest goals of the feminist movement of the '60s and '70s.

      Criminalization pushes sex workers away from services and supports and creates a hostile relationship with police, leading to a massive under-reporting of violence. This emboldens predators to continue to victimize with impunity and should be of great concern to true feminists. Criminalization makes police and law enforcement the regulators of the sex industry, despite a long history of violence and exploitation of women, particularly Indigenous, who are over-represented in street-based sex work and in our prison and criminal justice system.

      In the context of #MeToo, #TimesUp, and the difficulties women find in seeking justice through our police and courts, imagine the challenges sex workers must face. The narrative that sets sex workers apart from other women, in combination with all the ways in which sex workers are painted as helpless victims, is a direct invitation to predators to harm sex workers. Sex workers are often left asking radical feminists, are we not women?

      Kerry Porth is Pivot Legal Society's sex work policy consultant. She's also chaired Pivot Legal Society's board of directors from 2012 to 2017. This commentary originally appeared on the Pivot website.