Bill C-36, the federal government’s response to the Supreme Court ruling last December striking down Canada’s prostitution laws, has rekindled the debate over prostitution in Canada, and once again, women are profoundly divided on the issue. We will probably see these divisions play out next week, as parliamentary hearings on the bill begin on Monday.
One group of feminists, known in the prostitution debate as “feminist abolitionists,” support the criminalization of clients and those who profit from the industry because they perceive women to be victims of themselves, or others. According to this group, the expressions “sex work” and “sex workers” were adopted out of despair. Women are seen as victims, incapable of making decisions regarding their own lives. It is inconceivable for feminist abolitionists — and, as we know, many other groups in society more broadly — to imagine a woman rationally concluding that sex work is a way to become independent, to survive or simply to be. They must all be victims of coercion, the thinking goes.
Sexuality has long been a difficult issue for the women’s movement, and linkage of sex and money has been even more troublesome. In my view, the abolitionist point of view fails to take into account the complexity of sex workers’ decisions. In the final analysis, the problem with sex work appears to reflect, as Colette Parent, a criminologist from Ottawa, suggests, differences in understanding of the meaning of sexuality.