Sex Workers Rights at a Historic Crossroads

After spending the spring working on an online archives and teaching tool – check out the results at soon! – I am back to working on my book on same-sex marriage in the 50s, 60s and 70s in the United States, and not a moment too soon. Out in the contemporary world, the big news in Canada on the sexual justice front is the overturning of laws regulating the sex trade and Bill C-36, the proposed new law by the ruling Conservative government. In Canada, as most other parts of the global north, prostitutes are regarded as victims of sexual exploitation, never as capable negotiators of the sexual marketplace. Like most “victims,” they are rarely allowed to speak for themselves on the assumption that they are incapable of doing so. When they are allowed to speak, it is usually to support middle-class reform projects to save them from the clutches of patriarchal lust.

The voicelessness of sex workers is evident in the Wolfenden Report, the published findings of a 1954 British governmental committee, that became an international bestseller – it was even reprinted in a special American edition. The committee was tasked with addressing the twin social problems of prostitution and homosexuality. They may seem odd bedfellows now, but they weren’t then. Both were treated as a moral problem as well as criminal activities, and both were consensual acts that did not cause harm to others. With sexual mores and legal and medical ideas about human sexual behaviour changing, the British government wanted to consider the role of the state in regulating these two areas of social life.

After three years of study committee members recommended that sex in private between men over the age of 21 (they did not concern themselves with lesbian acts) be removed from the criminal code, but not because the majority believed homosexuality was acceptable. They simply agreed it was senseless to treat it as a criminal matter. The Wolfenden Report was released during an era of intense homophobia. In the 1950s, many legal and medical experts insisted that homosexuals were pedophiles. They were characterized as a threat to national security due to their apparent susceptibility to blackmail. The Report’s recommendations were rather conservative, but given the context of the times, that one recommendation alone made it seem like a radical manifesto for social change. Alongside the 1948 Kinsey Report, the Wolfenden Report became part of every pro-gay advocate’s arsenal in challenging anti-gay laws and attitudes.

Three gay men were called upon to testify about their experiences as gay men, but sex workers played no such role, even though the commission was equally tasked to solve the problem of regulating sex work. These differences speak to both gender and class attitudes. Women had just enough authority to be invited to serve on the commission (3 of the 15 committee members were women), but working-class and poor women did not share this privilege, and were not extended a similar invitation. Has anything changed?

Britain’s 1967 Sex Offenders Act adopted the commission’s recommendation that people over the age of 21 who have sex with a person of the same sex no longer be subject to criminal sanction. Canada followed suit the next year. We all know now that in Canada and Britain, that was just the first, small step toward a thirty-some year struggle for full legal equality for lesbians and gays. But what of sex workers?

The 2013 Supreme Court’s “Bedford” ruling and the recent legislation proposed by Canada’s Conservative government reveals that we are now at an important crossroads. The movement for sex workers rights, which has been in existence since the 1970s, is finally gaining legal traction, beginning with New Zealand’s abolition of laws criminalizing commercial sexual activities and now in Canada with the December 2013 Supreme Court ruling which found that existing laws regulating activities surrounding sex work place sex workers in danger. Bill C-36, the Conservative government’s response, was to go back in time and to re-criminalize sex work itself. In the late 19th century British feminists argued that sex workers were victims, not criminals, and they should not be subject to criminal prosecution. Instead, they should be “saved.” While sex worker advocates today don’t agree with this position, none would call for sex work to be re-criminalized as the new legislation does.

Despite forty years of sex work advocacy, most Canadians continue to regard sex workers through the same lens that late 19th century feminists viewed them: as victims in need of saving. When we actually listen to sex workers, as the Wolfenden commissioners did to homosexuals more than half a century ago, we learn that the matter is altogether more complex than how it is presented in photographs and news stories, just as it was for homosexuals. For some sex workers, sex is a positive activity that also serves as a livelihood. For others, it’s the best choice among a lot of really crappy choices, and for most, it is a job like any other job. One comes and goes as one’s circumstances change, or don’t.

Whatever the legislative outcome of the Bedford ruling, the events of the last six months show that sex worker rights are finally getting the hearing they have so long been denied. Lesbians and gays can play a useful role by helping to amplify their voices this coming summer. Both have been on the receiving end of moralizing and criminalizing judgments about the dominion they exercise over their bodies. For this reason, many lesbians and gays should recognize that the inherent right of a person to control their own body extends to the right to terminate a pregnancy (another burning issue that deserves more of our attention) and the right to charge a fee in exchange for sexual services without interference from the state. The sex worker struggle is part of the unfinished revolution. Let’s call on the organizers of World Pride and Pride Day to foreground this struggle and demonstrate our support for progressive, not regressive, legislation.