Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights

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by Kristen Aldrich

I am not a sex worker, I am an ally to sex workers and I want to add my voice to their voices. I am not here to talk for sex workers. They don’t need me to talk for them. Enough people have talked for sex workers for long enough. I want to talk with sex workers, to add my voice to the chorus of brave voices already crying out, demanding a listening ear.

It might shock many to learn, in Canada, although sex work is not illegal, laws surrounding sex work make most parts of the sex industry a criminal offense. There are three laws in the Criminal Code of Canada currently under scrutiny:

Section 210 “Common bawdy house”: The common bawdy house provision ensures indoor sex work is completely illegal. It is illegal to own or rent a property utilized for the purposes of prostitution. This means if sex workers want to follow the law they must work outdoors, which is extremely unsafe.

Section 212 (1)(j) “Living on the avails”: Living from the avails is said to be a law designed to prosecute a predatory relationship such as with a pimp, but these laws are vaguely written and therefore any support staff a sex worker may hire, such as an assistant, bodyguard or driver would be guilty of “living from the avails” by being in the employment of a sex worker. Sex workers often wind up conducting their work alone, which creates a dangerous environment.

Section 213 (1)(c) “Communicating for the purposes of prostitution”: This law is aimed mainly at outdoor sex work. This law is exactly what it sounds like. If you’re on the corner and a customer pulls up, you are breaking the law if you have a brief conversation about prices, rules and expectations. This puts sex workers at extreme personal risk.

Indian prostitutes peeking out from the doorways of their brothel - Lahore, Pakistan 1946

Indian prostitutes peeking out from the doorways of their brothel – Lahore, Pakistan 1946

In 2010, sex workers won a landmark case. In a 131-page ruling, Justice Susan Himel clearly outlines how the three provisions violate Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the right to security and liberty. In her ruling, Justice Himel states quite clearly any possible benefits that come from the above laws are outweighed by the harms.

Conservative heads exploded. You know how evidence muddies the water. Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson immediately declared the government would be appealing the Justice’s decision. Under a conservative majority, an appeal was filed.

In the face of the reality that the laws surrounding sex work actually violate the Charter rights of sex workers, we have to face the accompanying reality that the premises of those laws are structurally flawed. This is a reality marijuana activists have long discussed– the laws are more harmful than what the law is prohibiting.

Stigma keeps sex workers out of mainstream conversations about policy. 

One may ask then, with 131 pages of legal ruling, what’s the problem, why do sex workers still suffer second class citizenship? That is a loaded question, with an even more loaded answer

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to opposition to sex worker law reform. One is based in what are often called “traditional” values. This is the position that sex work is inherently wrong because it is immoral. These convictions are often, but not always, religious in nature.

The second school of thought is through a feminist lens, which views sex work as violence against women. Despite the insistence of feminist leaders such as anti-pornographer Gail Dines, the feminist opposition and religious opposition often work hand and hand to keep sex work illegal. Although they may have different reasoning for their beliefs, their beliefs are pretty close to the same.

Some feminists are a proponent of what is called the Nordic Model, this model of legislation criminalizes purchasing the services of a sex worker but not the sex worker herself. Although Sweden has produced reports that purport these laws work, many disagree. Laura Agustin, the Naked Anthropologist as she calls herself, did an excellent refutation of Sweden’s reports.

Both schools of thought rely on unreliable numbers and take studies out of context as a means to promote their

Laura Agustin, The Naked Anthropologist

Laura Agustin, The Naked Anthropologist

position. Both also conflate human trafficking with consensual sex work. To them a 12-year-old being smuggled across the border, chained up and sold into the control of a predator is the same as a sex worker posting her own ads and seeking sex work of her own volition. Clearly one of these things is not like the other.

We need legislators who care about sex workers.

The controversy-inducing nature of the subject often causes mainstream politicians and thinkers to hesitate from speaking out on this issue.

My husband, Steven Stairs, was inspired before he met me to start an Electoral District Association for the Marijuana Party of Canada. He intends to run for Member of Parliament (MP) in Kildonan-St. Paul in 2015. We are out and proud about our support of sex workers’ rights as a human rights issue and a workplace health and safety issue.

Regardless of our judgments or opinions of sex work, we acknowledge this simple truth. It is the oldest profession in the world and will always exist.


Japanese geisha sex workers, early 20th century.

Japanese geisha sex workers, early 20th century.

How can you help a sex worker?

While Canada’s laws are blatantly confusing and contradictory, the United States’ laws offer no protection.

The United States has similar policies toward prostitution. Although prostitution exists in all fifty states it is only legal in Nevada. The U.S. Constitution allows the power to control sex work to exist solely at the state level, but sex workers everywhere need the legal protection to report crimes against their person without threat of prosecution.

If you want sex work to be decriminalized, write your legislators to show your support for the rights of sex workers where you live. But, more than anything, ask sex workers themselves how you can help them, I think the best way to sum it up is in their own words, “Nothing about us, without us.”  Talk to a sex worker about how to advance their rights, you could learn something.