Why feminist Joyce Arthur supports sex workers' rights

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      Anyone who has been paying attention to Joyce Arthur over the years can’t question her feminist credentials. For more than 20 years, she has been involved in the pro-choice movement. And for most of that time, this self-described “quiet, shy, introverted person” has been a leader—writing a B.C. pro-choice newsletter for a decade, often speaking in the media, and founding the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. She’s now the executive director.

      “I like to say I have a PhD in abortion,” Arthur joked in a recent interview at the Georgia Straight office.

      But unlike many well-known feminists, Arthur has taken a very public stance in favour of letting sex workers become like any other workers with full labour rights. About four years ago, she and another Vancouver feminist, Esther Shannon, formed a group called FIRST, which argues against the country’s three major prostitution laws: communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution, keeping a common bawdy house, and living off the avails of prostitution. An Ontario judge struck down all three laws earlier this year, concluding that they violated sex workers’ constitutional rights. Prostitution itself is legal in Canada as long as the sale of sexual services doesn’t take place in public.

      “I saw a lot of parallels between the abortion issue and the sex-work issue,” Arthur explained, quickly adding that it’s not a “perfect” comparison.

      First off, she said, sex work and abortion involve women having control over their bodies, rather than letting the state interfere with their choices. Both issues are linked in their own way to sexual expression. In addition, she noted that nobody likes to have an abortion. And many people also don’t like the existence of the sex trade.

      “You don’t have to like it,” she said. “Understand that some women choose it—or feel they have to do it. It’s a job. Maybe not a very good job, maybe it’s a horrible, crappy job sometimes, but so is McDonald’s and some other jobs.”

      She pointed out that most sex workers ply their trade independently indoors by choice. But she claimed that this is often lost on the people she characterizes as “prohibitionists”, who focus on street sex workers who sell their bodies to survive. “They just want to save those women,” Arthur said. “Of course, we’re all concerned about those women, but they’re not the only ones [in the sex trade].”

      Moreover, she argued that even the survival sex workers don’t benefit from the current legislative framework. She claimed it drives them into isolated areas and makes them less likely to deal with the police. “I believe decrim will help the women on the street.”

      Earlier this year, Arthur was voted as the “favourite feminist” by sex workers at the annual Naked Truth Adult Entertainment Awards. Shannon won the award the previous year.

      Arthur, who was raised in a Christian fundamentalist home in Ontario, stumbled into the abortion-rights movement after having an unwanted pregnancy in the late 1980s. As she was dealing with this, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s abortion law. Later that year, she wandered into a rally organized by the B.C. Coalition for Abortion Clinics. She volunteered for a few years before she was asked to run for the board of directors in 1995.

      “Until you go through an unwanted pregnancy, you don’t know what it’s like,” Arthur said, recalling her experience. “It’s important that it’s up to them to be able to choose.”

      She said that she used to be sympathetic to the “prohibitionist” view of prostitution until she signed up for a feminist listserv. She was taken aback when some argued that all women in the sex trade were being exploited and victimized because that didn’t correspond with her experience. When she was 19 and 20 years old, Arthur worked as an exotic dancer, and she liked it. “I love dancing,” she said. “It’s fun to feel attractive to men, and I enjoyed it. I think a lot of women do.”

      As she delved more deeply into the arguments on the listserv, she concluded that those who argued for decriminalization of the sex trade “had the evidence and common sense on their side, and understood the issue more comprehensively in a more nuanced way”.

      Veteran sex worker Sue Davis told the Straight by phone that feminists like Arthur and Shannon have given her hope. Davis credited Shannon for spending two-and-a-half years teaching sex workers about the importance of public policy, and how to change it.

      “For a long time, I felt like feminism excluded sex workers, but now, you know, I really appreciate their courage to lead this forward and to demonstrate that to be feminist doesn’t mean to be an abolitionist,” Davis said. “They’re in the back rooms helping us set up panels and planning our events.”

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.




      Sep 29, 2011 at 8:33am

      Radical Feminists see sex work as a form of slavery and they go to great lengths to create an all-inclusive, one-sided perception of these people being subjected to exploitation and oppression. However, they have difficulty explaining the vast numbers of sex workers who choose this trade and enjoy it. I often question the morality of Radical Feminists because of their deceptive tactics in propagandizing this issue which some could call exploitation for the purpose of furthering their own political agenda.

      This is an excellent article and I commend the writer for his courage in presenting another side of the story which the public needs to know but rarely gets. The Georgia Straight is one of the few media outlets around that allows marginalized groups such as progressive Feminists to have a voice instead of catering to the extremely powerful and vocal Radical Feminist groups.

      Linda Rae Irvine

      Sep 29, 2011 at 11:49am

      I agree with Arthur's central premise of 'choice.' This is an excellent point: "She pointed out that most sex workers ply their trade independently indoors by choice. But she claimed that this is often lost on the people she characterizes as “prohibitionists”, who focus on street sex workers who sell their bodies to survive. “They just want to save those women,” Arthur said. “Of course, we’re all concerned about those women, but they’re not the only ones [in the sex trade]." It's very easy to tell people what you think they should do, having absolutely no idea what their life experience has been - or will be. I like her rational approach to the issue.

      Rod Scott

      Sep 29, 2011 at 1:54pm

      "First off, she said, sex work and abortion involve women having control over their bodies"
      I strongly disagree.
      I think that many women who wind up working in prostitution do so because of a lack of control in their lives. Not every person, but I would think the majority. Moreover, it creates a situation where a person relinquishes more control over their bodies. For example, if a person was truly in a position of control, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse, abuse, would not occur because they would have a choice in those matters. The fact that the many prostitutes contract sexually transmitted diseases or are abused (or worse) is proof that many women are not in control over their bodies when they engage in prostitution. It's an act of desperation for many, and is contrary to the argument of control.
      In the case of pregnancy resulting from carelessness and/or unprotected sex, women must realize that their position of control exists before they have sex. I understand this is a complicated issue, and I am not arguing across the board. When a woman has an abortion under the circumstances I have noted, they have placed priority over the control of their body over that of another living being. I know the counter argument to this will involve the definition of “life” or what it means to be a person, but the fact is that cells are reproducing and the only time it stops is the absence of life. When you choose abortion, you are placing control over your life at the expense of another. This is not a valid argument in my opinion.


      Sep 29, 2011 at 6:02pm

      " When you choose abortion, you are placing control over your life at the expense of another. This is not a valid argument in my opinion."

      That's a very slippery slope you're riding with that POV, Scott. Others who ride that same high horse of moral superiority end up learning how to calibrate rifle scopes and how to compensate for windage. Ah...yes, nothing like the stench of hypocrisy on a fine Xian morning while you're waiting for the ob/gyn to come into unobstructed range.

      Shaggy T

      Sep 29, 2011 at 10:35pm

      Well said

      Rod Scott

      Sep 30, 2011 at 9:54am

      Ms. Sleepswithangels: you are talking apples and oranges here. It's not the same slope or the same ball park. The argument to have an abortion because one should be free to do what one pleases with one's body does not consider the consequence to the unborn. It's not a logical argument because it's self-contradictory. If you would like to debate the moral issues surrounding hunting, this is not the forum. Please stick to the issues at hand and don't change the subject or try and blur it by comparing it to something that's irrelevant to this article. I'm not judging the act of abortion - I'm saying the argument is flawed.


      Sep 30, 2011 at 12:05pm

      Life is full of difficult decisions and dilemmas, Scott.

      eg: Let's say I'm a Christian fundamentalist pro-life type and I want to wade in on the abortion issue in a public forum and sound reasonable...do I rubbish the right of choice that women have by making them out to be essentially murderers or do I just stick to employing straw man fallacies...or do I do both?

      Since I'm not a delusional member of a large and scary cult, and it's Friday, I'll happily spend my down time over the weekend contemplating how much better the world would be if neo fascist whack jobs like our PM had been aborted.


      Rod Scott

      Sep 30, 2011 at 1:30pm

      Dear Sleeps: I don't wish harm on anyone, whether I share their opinion or simply lack comprehension of their argument. I don't think you should spend the weekend dwelling on such thoughts, as they are unproductive in the sense that it is a reality that never was, and extremely unhealthy for your own mental well-being. I encourage you to read the article again and what I have said. Instead of criticizing behind the anonymity of the internet, get into politics if it is change you seek. Talk to people, spread the word, find the love and share it. I feel you are passing a lot of judgement on me. You've insinuated that I (or those who share my position) am: morally superior; a hypocrite; a Christian fundamentalist; and perhaps a delusional member of a cult. Why? Because you disagree with me and perhaps you are starting to realize the flaws in the logic in Ms. Arthur's position. For all I know, maybe you are her. My unsolicited advice to you is stick to the debate, and try to avoid personal attacks. People tend to resort to such tactics when they feel threatened. Good day.


      Sep 30, 2011 at 4:35pm

      Hiya Scott. I actually derive a lot of pleasure from philisophical musing so contemplating a world where Herr Harper was an aborted fetus and Peter MacKay had to rise, unaided, to his maximum potential as a prison warden for recidivist test tube babies.... is actually a productive use of my spare time.

      I have to admit, Scott, I'm in awe of the way xians can speak of love while tacitly, or more directly, working to elect the kind of politicians who happily commit atrocities in the Mid East and developing world in order to shore up oil supplies. Who new that among the many astounding zeniths reached on our planet in all fields of endeavour in recent years that acts of hypocrisy would reach previously unattainable heights. I mean...how do you top the Inquisition for shear cruelty?

      Oh wait..I know I know!!!!
      You sodomized millions of children around the world and work really hard to elect people like George Bush and Dick Cheney so they can strew depleted uranium throughout the mid east which will kill indiscriminately for centuries to come....and all in the name of Jesus.

      Oddly enough...I don't feel threatened by your type any more because I already know how things will turn out for you. Instead of a rapture...think more in terms of a rupture. Being blind to reality in this day and age isn't what I would call conducive to survival. Shalom.


      Oct 2, 2011 at 12:45pm

      It’s hard to know where to begin and how to begin to untangle Arthur, Shannon and First’s position in this regard.

      Let’s begin with First. Do we assume the name was based on the fallacious concept that the first and oldest profession was that of prostitution? That prostitutes, like the poor, have always been with us? Let’s put that old saw to rest for once and for all.

      Our economies are based on ownership and scarcity. A person selling/trading sexual access must source a client having a surplus of what he or she needs, ie. some form of food, shelter, security. Thus, we have at least two individuals who have surpluses of something another wants or needs. One has material goods, the other, temporary use of his/her body. Would those in the so-called “oldest profession” be able to conduct such an exchange unless there was another, equally old, profession to do business with?

      Arthur and Shannon also insist on an equally false concept; that prostitution is a matter of “choice.” It is my understanding that a vast majority of prostitutes come from homes that were abusive, physically, emotionally and/or sexually. Statistics indicate that 50% of all girls and 25% of all boys experience some form of sexual abuse in childhood. Exactly how free is that “choice” within such a context? A person who has learned, at a very young age, to make his/her way through life through sexual manipulation will continue to use such a coping strategy into and through adulthood. The decriminalization/legalization of prostitution essentially creates a state-sanctioned continuation of the victim’s abuse.

      Finally, let’s think this through a little further. If prostitution became an acceptable profession, how long until some financially strapped individual turned to social services, only to be told they’d not exhausted all possible job opportunities? Would they not be forced into prostitution by the state? How might Ms. Arthur and Ms. Shannon respond were their children placed in such a position? The question as to whether this might occur within the confines of a brothel or on the street is minor in the face of the further commodification of our sexuality as individuals and as a culture.

      How might we all feel watching our children play at turning tricks with their Barbies?