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.”
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