Sex Work or Prostitution: Opinions Diverge

When I want to find about a topic that doesn’t directly affect my life I usually go to the people concerned. That gets complicated when writing about sex work. Or, should I say, prostitution. Feminists are so divided on this subject that I’m not sure what to call it. And we find feminists who work or have worked in the trade on both sides of the fence.

By Judith Lussier

In the pro-sex camp we find women who think that sex work is a trade like any other, and that the problem lies in the stigmatization of female sexuality. On the abolitionist side, they want to eradicate prostitution because they consider it to be sexual exploitation – basically, repeated rapes.

This division is nothing new. It rests on the limits each camp accords to the notion of a woman’s self-determination. Both sides believe a woman has a right to an abortion should she want one. But is a woman with a veil or a headscarf simply bowing to the patriarchy? Does a woman have the right to use her powers of seduction to make a living?

In 2013’s Bedford Case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that criminalizing the sex trade posed a danger to women, and that the government had to rewrite all their laws pertaining to sex work in order to protect sex workers. Abolitionists saw this as an opportunity to criminalize Johns (customers) and pimps in order to protect prostitutes. The pro-sex camp thought that this strategy would simply make women more vulnerable, forcing them to operate outside the law.

The gulf between our two camps has only widened with time. In 2018, the Quebec Federation of Women declared themselves firmly pro-sex, saying that prostitution is work like any other. As a result, a few organizations quit the Federation. Other groups adopted an abolitionist position, calling prostitution oppressive by its very nature.

Recently, one organization refused to grant me an interview if I was going to present the opposing point of view in my article.

As a militant myself, I understand why someone would think there aren’t always “two sides to every story.” As a journalist, I’m in conflict with my own personal values.  

Each side of this debate has its intelligent defenders. But they have their blind spots. For example, even if sex work is a choice for some, it is a choice made within the limits of a patriarchal society. A minority may come about this trade freely, but a majority of women are exploited.

Now if this work is going to continue anyway, shouldn’t it be carried out in the safest conditions possible? The idea of freely chosen work is often pedalled by women who are happy and fulfilled in the sex trade, who are not subject to the same exploitation as others.

I don’t know if the feminist movement will ever find common ground on this issue. I’m sure that this article will peeve women on both sides of the debate. Maybe if we collectively engaged ourselves in calm reflection, we could profit from finding some aspects of the problem that bring us together?

Regardless of your ideological posture on sex work or prostitution, we can all agree on the need to assure women’s safety and autonomy, and, to that end, set up something of a safety net that allows all workers to live with dignity. How we get there is another story.

First published in Reflet de Société magazine, vol. 29, no. 4, May 2021, pages 10-11

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