Sex Workers United
Congratulations to Upping the Anti for providing an excellent analysis of the issues facing sex workers in Canada and transnationally in “Sex Work and the State: An Interview with Kara Gillies” (UTA 7). Even though there is a constitutional challenge to prostitution-related offences in the Criminal Code currently underway, it appears that both popular media and academic interest in sex work has shifted to uncritical analyses of trafficking and sex tourism. This reflects, I believe, the ease with which anti-prostitution activists can deploy established narratives portraying racialized women in the Global South as victims in need of saving; an instance of a long and troubling history in South-North relations. The Western sex worker, while still portrayed as a victim, has become more resilient to portrayals as a hapless woman who lacks agency. As a consequence, focus has shifted away from the Canadian context (with exception for those identified as trafficked persons) during this critical moment when there is a legal challenge to the constitutionality of prostitution laws.
As Gillies points out, the hypocritical and contradictory role of Canadian prostitution laws is often misunderstood. Prostitution is legal in Canada. The implications of prostitution-related provisions of the Criminal Code are to de facto criminalize what is in fact a legal activity, with disastrous consequences for sex workers’ safety. The criminal law prohibits sex workers from working in public places while at the same time prohibiting sex workers from working in private, indoor spaces where we are often much safer. The criminal law also makes it impossible for sex workers to access basic labour protections (such as employment contracts) despite the fact that income earned through prostitution is taxable. As noted by Gillies, as well as a number of academics and government committees, the different sections of the prostitution laws contradict one another. It is unclear whether the laws are supposed to be preventing the visibility of prostitution or preventing prostitution altogether.
Feminist research on prostitution has made a significant contribution by making visible the violence sex workers experience. However, the knowledge produced about sex work often obfuscates the complexity and nuances of the sex industry and the diverse experiences of sex workers. Gillies points out that only 5 percent of sex work in Toronto, and between 10 percent and 15 percent of sex work in Canada, is street-based. This fact is not reflected in the majority of Canadian anti-prostitution feminist research. Research about prostitution tends to make broad generalizations about experiences of working in the sex industry and the prevalence of violence workers face. Working conditions in different sectors of the sex industry in Canada vary greatly and presuming experiences are universal while implying that there is a total subjectivity of the “prostitute” is deeply problematic. This has resulted in the silencing (often by academics) of sex workers who are not considered to be “authentic” enough or who do not see their work as violence, and a “speaking on the behalf of” those who experience higher levels of vulnerability or insecurity.
The importance of adopting a labour perspective on sex work cannot be overstated, and this is as true for sex workers in the Global South as it is for workers in the Global North. Sex work, as Gillies notes, is understood by sex workers’ rights organizations in the South as being one part of the solution to poverty many individuals experience as “underdeveloped” countries integrate into the global capitalist economy. Sex workers’ labour is devalued and exploited through the same gendered, racial, and colonial hierarchies that are used to devalue labour in the global manufacturing or domestic service industries, and should not be conceptualized as exploitation that is somehow inherently different than exploitation in other industries. The only way for workers, including sex workers, to resist exploitation is through an understanding of their work as “real” work. Workers who do not understand what they do as work are unlikely to organize or to engage in political struggle to end exploitative and unsafe working conditions.
I believe that it is possible for sex workers to return from work safe and well, and that violence and exploitation are not any more inherent or “natural” to prostitution than they are to other forms of labour. The insights that a Marxist perspective provides for theorizing relationships between labour and capital should not be neglected as soon as the industry being discussed is the sex industry. I hope Gillies’ interview encourages more people to understand the connections between sex work and other forms of work, and to become more aware of the complexity of issues facing sex workers in Canada and transnationally.
Sex worker and sex workers’ rights activist, Toronto