April 9, 2014

Sex Work and Violence

At The SASC’s monthly meeting, two former sex workers from PACE facilitated a workshop on sex work. The PACE Society is an organization in Vancouver that was founded by a group of sex workers in the early 1990s and is run “by, with and for sex workers”. It promotes safer working conditions and harm reduction, while addressing the specific needs of sex workers. It also provides a variety of health services to sex workers (all types of sex workers and all genders) and aims to educate the public regarding sex work.

Hearing the experiences of sex workers firsthand was incredibly eye-opening and brought to light the issues that they face on a daily basis. In Canada, sex workers are currently exposed to high levels of violence, and work in physically and psychologically demanding environments. This led me to question the effect that legal frameworks have on sex workers’ ability to work in a safe environment.

There are a number of legal frameworks that have been implemented in different countries to address this issue. The Nordic model is one approach that criminalizes those who purchase sexual services, and it is also widely embraced by supporters of the abolitionist approach to sex work. These supporters believe that female sex workers are victims of male violence and exploitation, and thus need to be rescued. This contention is problematic, however, in that it does not acknowledge sex workers’ agency and right to self-determination.

A major issue with the Nordic model is that it would have a differential impact on sex workers; while some sex workers may seek alternative employment, others will continue with sex work. Many current and former sex workers believe that any form of “criminalization is criminalization” and that working within this type of legal framework puts sex workers at unnecessary risk. To be sure, criminalizing those who purchase sexual services would likely force sex workers into dangerous situations, as their clients would take measures to avoid being caught, such as bringing sex workers to more isolated areas. The result may be increased violence, decreased negotiating power for safer sex practices, and increased mental health issues. As such, implementing the Nordic model would likely do little to improve the current situation of sex workers and to create a climate that is conducive to health and wellbeing.

A human rights and harm reduction approach necessitates the decriminalization of sex work. PACE articulates the need for this change: “We envision a future where all sex workers will be free from the risk of violence, discrimination, social stigmas, and harms so they may enjoy the same rights as all other Canadian citizens, including the rights to life, liberty, security of the person and equal protection under the law”. Until equitable laws are implemented, the sex worker population will continue to bear a disproportionate burden of violence. This is a human rights issue, which necessitates a human rights-based approach.

Links for more information:

Sex Work Law Reform in Canada

Selling Sex

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