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Sex Work is Real Work: A Guide to Taking Sides

[What follows is a Position Statement pertaining to sex work in Canadian-occupied territories. In addition to the Position Statement, I have provided a considerable amount of context and research to assist others in negotiating what (initially, especially to outsiders) appears to be a very confusing, complicated, and contradictory terrain. This is a live document, meaning that I may still be altering it based on feedback received from sex workers, sex worker led and organized groups, and others whom I trust and respect (just as voices from all those groups provided feedback on earlier draft versions of this Statement). Feel free to copy and share this as you see fit. I can also email you a PDF version of the document, if you provide your contact information in the comments.]

Position Statement

This paper proposes that individuals and organizations take something akin to the following public position pertaining to sex work in Canadian-occupied territories:

We believe that sex work is real work and, although any form of labour that is determined by the dynamics of capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy, is necessarily exploitative and harmful, we believe that sex work is not any more inherently violent or oppressive than the other forms of labour that are available to those who are not born rich. Therefore, we believe that workers who choose sex work are just as free (or not free) as workers who choose any other form of real work. By recognizing this, we distinguish sex work from human trafficking and affirm sex work while opposing human trafficking. In our affirmation of sex work, we recognize that the overwhelming bulk of evidence-based research demonstrates that full decriminalization (of both supply and demand) consistently produces the best outcomes for sex workers, victims and survivors of human trafficking, and the community more broadly. By affirming this, we stand in solidarity with sex worker led and sex worker organized collectives who, like other organized and organizing workers’ groups, are fighting to determine the conditions, supports, and protections they need in order to do their jobs.

Therefore, although we recognize that the Canadian State and most State-sponsored social services are heavily invested in perpetuating capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy, we urge the Government of Canada and those who offer support services to people who engage in sex work, to abandon the harmful Nordic Model and, instead, to learn from New Zealand’s much more successful (but still somewhat problematical) Prostitution Reform Act, and enact the full decriminalization of sex work. In the meantime, we will refuse to contribute to or participate within the surveillance, oppression, and abuse of sex workers that is currently sponsored by the Canadian State and its juridico-political and carceral apparatuses, we will refuse to support non-governmental organizations that equate all sex work with human trafficking, and we will follow the lead of sex worker led and sex worker organized groups and do what they suggest is best for finding our way forward together.

In order to unpack and defend this position, this paper will proceed in three sections. First, a number of dynamics that complicate the conversation around sex work will be explored. These include: setting out the basic terms of the conversation and how various parties deploy them, examining whose voices are prioritized and how or why those voices are prioritized by various parties, and highlighting further contextual factors related to capitalism’s exploitation of labour, the context of Canadian settler colonialism, and the ways in which men who engage in sex work are often overlooked (and why that might be the case).

Exploring these dynamics paves the way for the second major section of this paper wherein I will examine the two main positions taken on sex work, prostitution, and human trafficking. Here, I will begin by looking at the abolitionist position (sometimes also referred to as the “prohibitionist” position), its equation of all “prostitution” with “human trafficking,” and its support for the Nordic Model, which criminalizes consumers and third-party managers rather than the direct suppliers of sex as a market commodity. We will then look at criticisms of the Nordic Model and the full decriminalization approach advocated for by those who are personally involved in sex work or who are motivated by research pertaining to health, safety, de-stigmatization, and the lessons learned from the Prostitution Reform Act that became law in Aotearoa (so-called New Zealand) in 2003.

Finally, in the third part, I return to examining contextual factors and briefly comment on the notions of “root causes” and “upstream interventions” as they pertain to the discourse on sex work.

1. Background to the Statement: Negotiating a Complicated and Obfuscated Terrain

In this first section, we will explore basic background material that must be understood in order to evaluate the primary two positions taken in relation to sex work. We will begin by examining how the central terms of reference are deployed (and contested). We will then examine the matter of whose voices are prioritized in mapping a way forward. Finally, we will highlight three further contextual factors relevant to understanding sex work in Canadian-occupied territories.

A. Contested Terminology

Any outsider trying to enter into the contemporary conversation pertaining to sex work will immediately be confronted with a diversity of terms. Several of these terms are used in different and not always overlapping ways by different parties, and all of them tend to be deployed by different factions to express different commitments and affirm different presuppositions, in the pursuit of different outcomes. Consequently, the newcomer may either miss the overtones of the language that is being deployed or very rapidly become confused as to what exactly everyone is talking about. Therefore, to begin, we need to first be clear that there is not even a universally agreed upon term for what we are talking about. Instead, one finds three central terms, all of which are contested, and all of which are prioritized by different parties with different objectives. These terms are “sex work,” “prostitution,” and “human trafficking.”

The term “sex work” is the term overwhelmingly favoured by people in this conversation who are currently engaged in selling sexual services. It also tends also to be favoured by those who approach the conversation from healthcare or human rights-based lenses. Sex work can be defined as “the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for money or goods.”[1] This term highlights the agency and rights of those who sell sexual services.[2]

However, abolitionists (i.e., those who wish to put an end any and all transactions of this nature) reject this term because, as we will see, they reject the notion that sex workers (by whom they mean women and children) can freely consent to exchanging sexual services for money. Consequently, the term “human trafficking” is most frequently used as an umbrella term deployed by abolitionists. This focus emphasizes their belief that the exchange of sexual services for money is always coercive and consistently exploits vulnerable women and girls.[3]

The third term, “prostitution,” is the one actually used in Canadian Law to “describe the exchange of sexual activity for monetary purposes.”[4] Understood in this strictly technical manner, the term “prostitution” actually says little about the core points of dissension between abolitionists and those who favour decriminalization but: (a) it tends to be avoided by sex workers engaged in this conversation because of the layers of stigmatization that are presently associated with the word; and (b) abolitionists have run very successful campaigns to ensure that all prostitution is understood under the domain of human trafficking. Thus, for example, abolitionists argue that prostitution is coerced, victimizing, necessarily demeaning and, far from being empowering, it is better understood as violence against women and children.[5] Therefore, abolitionists argue that prostitution cannot be described as “work” and that rather than referring to someone as a “sex worker” one should refer to “prostituted women,” “children used in prostitution,” or a “sexually exploited” people.[6] In this context, going somewhere with the intent of purchasing and engaging in “sexual intercourse” is immediately considered an act of sexual exploitation.[7]

Here, it should be noted that the lobbying power of abolitionist groups has confused statements made by international organizations who explicitly distinguish between “sex work” and “human trafficking.” For example, both the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and the United Nations Human Rights Commission refuse to collapse all sex work into sex trafficking. They also reject the idea that all prostitution requires trafficking, that was proposed to them by the abolitionist Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (CATW).[8] However, despite this stance, the United Nations “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons,” defines “trafficking in persons” as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation.[9]

Here, while addressing a highly contentious issue, and desiring to appease multiple, conflicting parties, broad and vaguely-defined terms are used (e.g., “coercion,” “abuse of power,” “position of vulnerability,” “exploitation”). Furthermore, the Protocol goes on to state that any “consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth [above] shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth [above] have been used.”[10] This, then, paves the way for abolitionist groups to cherry-pick what they want from the Protocol and claim that it (and, by implication the United Nations) supports their position even though all major relevant bodies of the United Nations explicitly disagree with the abolitionist position.

One of the lessons derived from this is the importance of speaking as clearly and precisely as possible when it comes to discussing the purchase of sexual services. Another lesson is that attempting to placate all parties will likely only end up frustrating everyone. In this context, it is necessary to take sides (and I’m sure both sides would be quick to quote Desmond Tutu’s saying that remaining neutral in an unjust situation means taking the side of the oppressor!). Furthermore, taking sides will mean disagreeing with some of those whom one might otherwise wish to support. Not all of those who sell or have sold sexual services for money agree on what constitutes “sex work” or “prostitution” or “human trafficking” or “sexual exploitation.” Consequently, one cannot act as an ally to all sex workers, all the time, everywhere. This is generally the case with all efforts to be meaningful allies to any group of people experiencing oppression. As Indigenous scholar, Dr. Toby Rollo writes:

This is one of the biggest responsibilities of someone who wishes to do anti-oppression work: to think critically about the diversity and disagreement that naturally occurs within and between groups, and to make judgements about how to proceed given the inevitability of those disagreements. It is inevitable that someone in a group with whom you work in solidarity will ask you to be silent. It is also inevitable that others will ask you to speak up. The worst thing one can do is let a diversity of perspectives paralyze you intellectually or physically, rendering you unable to do the work.[11]

Fulfilling this responsibility, and critically engaging the diversity and disagreement that occurs within and between groups involved in the conversation around sex work leads to our next section.

B. Whose Voices Count (Why and to Whom)?

In attempting to negotiate this initially quite confusing terrain, those who desire to support anti-oppressive policies and practices have learned that it is important to prioritize and listen to the voices of people with lived experience. This is generally the case in any situation of oppression—women are those best situated to understand what needs to be done to overturn the patriarchy, members of the queer community are best equipped to challenge the taken-for-granted standards of heteronormativity, Black people, Indigenous people, and other People of Colour are best able analyze racism and colonialism, people who use drugs have always led the way in terms of harm reduction, and so on. Consequently, when it comes to matter related to the exchange of sexual services for money, it is critical that people with lived experience are given precedence and priority. Far from a tokenistic, or paternalizing gesture that claims to “empower” those who have been “victimized,” this means not only listening to people with lived experiencing but actively following their leadership in this area.[12] This means moving beyond much of the discourse employed in social services wherein peers are considered as “supports” who supplement the more important work performed by registered professionals (and pay disparities between so-called “peer supports” and other workers quickly show that, yes, the work of peers is valued less than the work of others, regardless of the rhetoric deployed by various non-profit organizations). Instead, peers should be viewed as the true experts in their particular area of experience. In this regard the sex workers who are members of Vancouver’s Native Youth Sexual Health Association could not be clearer:

We want to give voice to these issues so that those who are CURRENTLY involved in sex work and the sex industries feel supported and are the primary place where decisions surrounding our lives are made. We should not be made to feel judged, blamed, or shunned from ANY of the communities we belong to or are coming from. We are the best deciders of what we want our lives to be.[13]

They then go on to add, “[w]e collectively and steadfastly resist the so-called “rescuing” and “saving” approach … We are asking for support that is unconditional and meets us where we are at.”[14]

However, following this methodological priority does not immediately and easily resolve the tensions and contradictions between the various factions involved in conversation about sex work because, as any newcomer to the conversation quickly discovers, parties on all side claim that they are the ones actually listening to people with lived experience. Each faction claims that they are the ones doing the best job of listening to those with lived experience and unconditionally supporting them where they are at. Thus, while sex workers involved with Vancouver’s Native Youth Sexual Health Association have asked for support that acknowledges them and reduces the harms they experience as sex workers engaged in sex work, a briefing created by the CATW contains the following statement from survivors of sexual exploitation: “We, the survivors of prostitution and trafficking gathered at this press conference today, declare that prostitution is violence against women.”

How, then, should an outsider who desires to be useful judge between these competing and contradictory claims? Well, one way of beginning to resolve this is through a more careful examination of the ways the voices of sex workers or survivors are deployed by the various factions. Focusing on the abolitionist camp, a few significant observations come to light. First of all, it should be observed that people with lived experience are almost always used in a supportive capacity rather than in a leadership capacity. That is to say, abolitionist groups are not led by people with lived experience of exchanging sexual services for money. They are usually led by people with lived experience of violence against women, and violence against women is conflated with the exchange of sexual services for money, and only those people with lived experiences who affirm this narrative are highlighted and brought to the fore in order to demonstrate this.[15] Of course, it is important to immediately acknowledge that there are many, many people who have experienced extremely vicious and brutal forms of violent sexual exploitation and that human trafficking is a very real part of our world. However, there are three things that are problematical about the ways in which abolitionist groups present this. These are: (1) the ways in which people with lived experience are absent from leadership positions; (2) the ways in which the experiences of some are made into the experiences of all; and (3) the ways in which this analysis of violence against people trafficked for sexual purposes neglects a significant analysis of sources of that violence. I will now explore each of these points in more detail.

It is significant that people with lived experience of exchanging sexual services for money are consistently absent from leadership positions in abolitionist organizations because there are many other organizations where people with lived experience are doing the leading—from PACE and PEERS in Vancouver, to Maggie’s in Toronto, to SafeSpace in London, to the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, and beyond, there is no shortage of groups in Canadian-occupied territories that have been organized by sex workers, or that have people with sex work experience in prominent leadership positions. However, abolitionist groups consistenly ignore these organizations and when forced to address them, abolitionists tend to describe them as “sex industry lobbyists.”[16] This obfuscatory language paints a picture of some creepy dude with mob connections counting his money in a warehouse full of bukkake videos, rather than reflecting the reality that the so-called “sex industry lobbyists” whom abolitionists vehemently oppose are actually grassroots organizations composed by and for people with lived experience of sex work—i.e., the very people abolitionists claim to represent and whose voices the abolitionists claim to prioritize. So we come to see that organizations that recruit survivors of trafficking and sexual exploitation are distinct from organizations that are led and organized by people with lived experience of sex work. Furthermore, we discover that sex worker led and organized groups are frequently opposed by the organizations focused on helping survivors of human trafficking. Understanding why this is the case leads to the second point.

Sex worker led and organized groups are opposed by abolitionist groups because every prominent sex worker led or organized groups rejects the abolitionist position and, instead, calls for the full decriminalization of sex work. Here, it is significant to observe that sex worker led and organized groups do not deny the reality of sexual exploitation and human trafficking but they reject the idea that this is inherent to sex work qua sex work or that it reflects the experiences of everyone who engages in sex work. In other word, while abolitionists propose a strictly black-and-white view of the matter, sex worker led and organized groups argue that this binary thinking does not accurately reflect the experiences of many people and, in fact, actually harms sex workers (in ways that will be explored below). Thus, while sex workers who favour decriminalization do not deny the reality of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, abolitionists do deny the possibility that sex work can ever be anything but sexual violence.

It should be noted that this conflict is further exacerbated by transantagonism and the ways in which most abolitionist groups operate with a gender essentialism (or biologism) that limits their services to cis-gendered women and refuses to recognize any other women as women.[17] Many abolitionist organizations refuse to provide services to trans, two-spirited, intersexed, or gender nonconforming women, even though research shows that trans, two-spirited, intersexed, or gender nonconforming women who are involved in exchanging sexual services for money are especially vulnerable to experiencing violence.[18] Furthermore, these same trans, two-spirited, intersexed, or gender nonconforming women are frequently in prominent leadership positions in sex worker led and sex worker organized groups, and many of these leaders have personally experienced the harms caused by the discriminatory practices of abolitionist groups.

That said, just to be as clear as possible, the point of disagreement between abolitionists and sex worker led and organized groups is not about the existence of human trafficking or sexual violence within the so-called “sex industry.” The disagreement is about the extent of that exploitation and violence and about whether or not it is accurate to say that this is a universal, inherent, and necessary component of all financial-sexual transactions. Abolitionists say yes. Sex workers say no.

Finally, the third problematical element about the ways in which abolitionists relate to the voices of those with lived experience, is that their analysis of the sources of violence against women and girls, especially in relation to the commodification of sex, is insufficiently rigorous and neglects key sources of violence against sex workers, even going so far as to support some abuser groups. Specifically, abolitionists ignore the fact that police forces are one of the biggest sources of violence against both women and sex workers. It is well known that the police are the profession with the highest rate of domestic violence in their families (with, for example, a minimum of 40% of families of police officers in the United States experiencing some form of domestic violence, making this statistic four times higher than the average rate for professions in the USA).[19] There is little reason to think matters are different in Canada. One in five sexual assault cases reported to police in Canada are classified as “unfounded” and never investigated.[20] This is the result of systematic discrimination against women who report sexual assaults and sexual violence to the police. But, in addition to this discrimination, the police are also frequently perpetrators of sexual violence against women. The class action lawsuit representing at least two thousand four hundred women who experienced sexual discrimination and violence from their peers and superiors in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is well-known and ongoing.[21] It has also now become apparent that the RCMP were involved in covering up the disappearances and murders of Indigenous women along the Highway of Tears in so-called British Columbia.[22] Furthermore, Commissioner Wally Oppal, of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry which was created in response to the Robert Pickton case, concluded that systemic bias against sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside led to indifference and significant failures in policing – leading both the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and the RCMP to issue public apologies for their apathy and engage in a number of large pay-outs to families of survivors.[23] Furthermore, allegations pertaining to the sexual abuse of Indigenous women in the Val D’Or region by members of the Sûreté du Québec are also well-known and highly credible.[24] And what is true at the local level is also true at the international level—Victor Malarek (despite his sometimes problematical exploration of human trafficking) has convincingly demonstrated that the presence of international police forces—“Peacekeepers” and so on—is one of the best ways of tracking where trafficked women and girls will show up—because members of international police forces are frequent purchasers of sex with trafficked women and girls.[25] Anecdotally I will one more thing to these reports. In my work with street-involved youth in Toronto, I do not think I knew a single underage sex worker who had not been sexually assaulted or exploited by a police officer at some point (e.g., a cop would threaten to charge a teenage girl with some crime unless the teenager agreed to give the cop a blowjob—and when some of these teenagers rejected this bargain they ended up being forcibly held and raped in the back of patrol cars).

What this ever-growing body of evidence shows is that the police are a particularly consistent and prominent source of sexualized violence against women in general and against sex workers in particular. However, abolitionists ignore this—just as they ignore the voices of sex workers and other women who bring this matter to our attention—and so they (the abolitionists) regularly work uncritically and collaboratively with police (or even permit the police to set the agenda), just as they also work to expand militarized police budgets, to expand the ability of police forces to interfere in the everyday lives of community members, and to expand the moral authority the police claim as the basis of their use of force. Unfortunately, as we will see below, this only further harms sex workers.

C. Three Further Contextual Factors: Capitalism, Colonialism, and Men who Sell Sex

There are three additional factors that should at least be briefly addressed in order to adequately lay the foundation for evaluating the main approaches to sex work. These are capitalism and the way in which it exploits labour, colonialism and its influence on the demographics of sex work in Canadian-occupied territories, and the oft-forgotten but none the less very real presence of men who engage in sex work. It is somewhat artificial to separate these issues from one another since they intersect, overlap, and mutually constitute each other, but, for the sake of clarity, I will address them individually, beginning with the matter of capitalism’s exploitation of labour.

One of the crucial factors relevant to conversations about sex work is the matter of consent—how consent is influenced by the experience of vulnerability or (multidimensional) oppression, and when it becomes impossible for consent to be given (regardless of the feelings or thoughts of the person to whom the possibility of consent is being denied). Thus, for example, while the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA) agrees with the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) when it states that “conflating human trafficking with prostitution results in ineffective anti-trafficking efforts and human rights violations,” the CPHA goes on to observe that it is “becoming more difficult to differentiate between consensual and exploitative sex work, as many sex workers find themselves forced into the trade due to the effects of social determinants or structural violence or as a means of survival.”[26] Thus, the CPHA further observes that current or former experiences of poverty, homelessness, and trauma, especially when further exacerbated by other experiences of stigmatization, marginalization, domestic violence, and (most especially) colonization, are significant contributing factors for involvement in sex work.[27] Other significant contributing factors include the experience of childhood abuse, having been involved in the foster care system, lower levels of education, significantly less formal employment experience, having parents with little or no education or formal work experience, and the absence of an income-earning partner.[28] That said, while some parties give considerable emphasis to prior experiences of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to frame all sex workers in a particular way (i.e., as “victims”), it should be noted that, while sex workers have experienced these things at a higher rate than members of the non-sex-working public, it is still only a minority of sex workers who identify with those experiences. Therefore, in their comparative analysis of this matter, Benoit, McCarthy, and Jansson conclude that the most influential factors are intergenerational experiences of poverty and instability, paired with intergenerational patterns of low education and little formal employment experience.[29]

Be that as it may, this combination of factors has led abolitionists to conclude that sex work is not a profession that is freely chosen by those who sell sexual services for money but is, instead, something forced upon them by the experience of vulnerability, marginality, and so forth. As the London Abused Women’s Center (LAWC) asserts: “prostitution as actually practised in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking. It is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person’s experience within prostitution do not involve, at the very least, an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability.”[30] CATW makes a similar statement: “Women in prostitution do not wake up one day and “choose to be prostitutes. It is chosen for us by poverty, past sexual abuse, the pimps who take advantage of our vulnerabilities, and the men who buy us for the sex of prostitution.”[31] Therefore, they conclude that “the “sex work” model is a misguided attempt to bestow dignity on a stigmatized and marginalized population; unfortunately, what it actually does is confer legitimacy on the system of sexual exploitation that devastate the lives of prostituted women and children.”[32]This then leads many abolitionists to two further conclusions: first, that sex work is “inherently unsafe and dangerous” (and so should be abolished regardless of the degree of danger involved in this-or-that specific transaction);[33] and second, that just as a child cannot legally consent to have sex with an adult, or a person incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot legally consent to have sex with another person, so also women who sell sexual services in this context of vulnerability and oppression, cannot legally or reasonably be said to consent to that transaction.[34] In this regard, abolitionists sometimes accuse those who push for full decriminalization as exhibiting a form of “white feminism” that naively universalizes their personal experiences of privilege and refuses to acknowledge or listen to the voices of those who are silenced and oppressed.[35]

Sex worker led and organized groups strongly object to these conclusions. Given that their members are generally still actively exchanging sexual services for money, and given that those who object to their work are generally professionally paid social service workers or program managers who commute to work from the suburbs, the charge that they (the sex workers) are engaging in a form of “white feminism” that is rooted in privilege seems especially odd. Furthermore, sex worker led and organized groups argue that comparing adult women to children or people who have been incapacitated by drugs or alcohol is infantilizing, disempowering, offensive, and harmful. Instead, they reassert their agency, power, and ability to make their own decisions. As the Global Network of Sex Work Projects states:

sex workers assert agency in their decision to involve themselves in selling sex. Women of colour, Indigenous women, migrant women, and other marginalized sex workers are represented as being particularly unable to consent to sex work under [the abolitionist] perspective, in comparison to white and middle-class women who are portrayed as having agency in their decisions about their role in sex work. This perspective has been criticized for reproducing colonial discourses that assert that women in the global South [and other women from “minority” populations] are less capable of exerting agency in their lives.[36]

Sex worker led organizations do not deny that sex work can sometimes be risky, dangerous, exploitative, or lead to injury. What they do deny is that this somehow sets sex work apart from other types of work that are common within the context of global capitalism. Thus, as one sex worker observes: “Everybody eats, so we can buy food. Everybody sleeps, we can buy beds and hotels. Everybody has sex, so why can’t we say that we’re paying for sex? … There are risks if you’re going to work at Wendy’s, you can get burned with oil, right. Everybody takes risks, everybody takes precautions for those risks.”[37] In fact, a lot of work that is done by women (but that is not sex work) is dangerous, coerced (due to a lack of other job options), without consideration for the worker’s humanity, and not at all concerned with “providing mutual pleasure” (such as factory work which links long hours with tedious work, low wages, and the high probability of some kind of bodily injury being sustained over time or in a traumatic accident).[38] However, all of these forms of work—factory work, fast food work, domestic work, and so on—are neither stigmatized nor is the suggestion made that they should be criminalized.

In fact, the exposure of labourers to all of these things (and more) was fundamental to the rise of the capitalist class and with the collapse of the welfare State and the global spread of neoliberal capitalism, workers are yet again being increasingly exposed to risk, danger, exploitation and the possibility of injury.[39] This is the reality of being required to work for the money needed to retain even the most basic things required to live (food, shelter, clothing, and so on). However, this context does not entirely obliterate the agency of workers and it does not annihilate their ability to consent or dissent. Consequently, while it is certainly true that some women are forced into selling sex, it is also equally true that some women exercise their agency and choose to engage in sex work because they see this is a better option than engaging in low-prestige, low-paying, bullshit jobs.[40] Granted, this choice is still constricted and the range of options a person has are limited and heavily influenced by other structural factors, but this is no more a reason to reject sex work qua sex work than it is to reject people who find all kinds of other ways to make money or supplement their incomes (for example, by Ubering on weekends or by renting out part of their home as an Airbnb). To suggest the vulnerability of sex workers is of an entirely different nature than the precarity of other forms of labour means that, simply stated, one must take issue not with the exploitation of labour per se, but, instead, take issue with the commodification of sex. What needs to be explained is why it is okay to sell one’s body in all kinds of other dangerous ways, and to be exploited in all kinds of other unsatisfying work environments, but why it is not okay for sex to be a factor in any of this. Because a lot of women would argue that, rather than needing to be rescued, they have rescued themselves from shitty circumstances and shitty job options precisely by choosing to engage in sex work. An inability to concede this point seems to be rooted in and driven by a particular moral view on sex than it is rooted in and driven by a particular understanding of oppression, agency, exploitation, empowerment, and bodily care.[41]

But capitalism is not the only system that plays an influential role here. Colonization also plays a significant role in the sex industry in Canadian-occupied territories. While Indigenous peoples make up 4.9% of the population of the territories colonized by Canada, studies related to the demographics of sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside show that Indigenous women make up approximately 52­–60% of that population.[42] Thus, it is frequently observed that Indigenous women (but also youth, girls, and two-spirited people) are massively overrepresented in sex working populations. Consequently, along with other statistics like disproportionately high rates of Indigenous people who are incarcerated, or disproportionately high rates of Indigenous youth who suicide, this statistic is then related to the ongoing history of colonial violence which, itself, has always had violent gendered and sexual elements.[43] Colonialism within Canadian occupied territories has actively worked to dispossess Indigenous women from their (relationship to) land, destroy their leadership functions within their communities, impose on them white gender norms within European heteropatriarchal nuclear families, strip them of their Indigenous identity if they married non-Indigenous men, violently enforce white gender codes through residential schools, threw them into deep poverty, and so on. Essentially, it has sought to eliminate Indigenous women while rendering them vulnerable to rape and murder.

However, as Sarah Hunt notes, those who make observations like these in relation to Indigenous women and sex work, frequently go on to treat Indigenous sex workers as “nameless, voiceless, placeless victims … some disempowered sister-Other.”[44] So, once again, we are urged to listen to the voices of people with lived experience. Here the context of colonialism further complicates matters—because Indigenous groups have taken a plurality of (not always compatible) positions on this matter, and each party can appeal to the legacy of colonialism to support their position. For example, Indigenous abolitionists can point to the ongoing colonial legacy of pimping, trafficking, and sexually exploiting Indigenous women; and Indigenous parties committed to decriminalization can point out that prohibiting Indigenous women from engaging in sex work is another way for the Canadian State to continue to exert control over the bodies of Indigenous women and Indigenous sexualities more generally.[45] In this context, they go on to argue, sex work becomes not only a survival strategy but actually a means of resistance to colonialism. Therefore, both Sarah Hunt and Julie Kaye argue that any approach to this matter that highlights Indigenous experiences must be committed to supporting concrete, communal, local and specific practices of decolonization—as determined by the sovereign Indigenous nation at hand.

Kaye further argues that strategies and discourses about sex work more generally must pay attention to the ways in which they do or do not further contribute to the narrative of settler colonialism. For example, she notes how it is common to observe that the majority of people trafficked within Canada are Indigenous and this is referred to as “domestic” rather than “international” trafficking—but framing the issue in this manner reaffirms Canada’s claim to these territories and ignores Indigenous sovereignties and the nation-to-nation treaties that have been established here.[46] Furthermore, Kaye highlights how so-called “domestic” trafficking does not receive nearly the same amount of media attention as “international” trafficking and when Indigenous women are reference in the media, they are far more likely to be highlighted as perpetrators rather than victims of crime.[47] Additionally, she points out how the anti-trafficking discourse, when it does address the trafficking of Indigenous women and youth, tends to result in heightened police involvement in Indigenous communities and lives (an ongoing element of colonization, recalling that the RCMP were actually originally founded to forcibly subdue Indigenous peoples), all while feeding into Canada’s (highly contrived) image of itself as a nation full of justice-loving, truth and reconciliation driven, peacekeepers.[48] Consequently, when those who are not Indigenous to these lands wish to engage in this area in a way that supports both decolonization and sex workers (especially Indigenous sex workers as a particular subgroup), caution, care, and attentiveness are required. And, once again, if one wishes to act in any sort of sustained, consistent, or meaningful way, it will become necessary to take sides.

The final contextual factor that I wish to highlight is the often-neglected presence of men who exchange sexual services for money. On average, the experiences of men who engage in sex work are significantly different than mainstream understandings of what sex work entails. For example, male workers are rarely managed by another person (or organization) and they are also far less likely to be victims of bad dates than female, trans, two-spirited, or gender nonconforming workers.[49] In fact, male workers identify violence from the general public—being assaulted, robbed, confronted, shamed, and so on—as the number one risk involved in their work.[50] Furthermore, they also consistently argue that their experience of this violence from the general public is the result of both homoantagonism and stigma that arises from the criminalization of elements related to sex work.[51] Additionally, while family background may be a factor in entry into sex work for men, the unique contributing factors here often relate to how a man’s family responds to his sexual identification as a gay man (although, of course, there are also some male sex workers who are “gay for pay”). Now, given the ways in which abolitionists, in conjunction with the police, and governmental bodies (who have adopted the abolitionist model) have been able to control much of the public discourse around sex work, it makes sense that male workers would be forgotten or deliberately ignored. Male sex workers do not fit into the narrative about violence against women. Given their greater ability to work independently, they also do not easily fit into narratives about human trafficking and the presentation of all sex workers as victims lacking agency. In fact, the observation that male sex workers regularly identify stigma and discrimination from the general public (including healthcare workers), and the ways in which criminal code exacerbates these things, as the root cause of the harms they experience as sex workers, strongly supports the position of those who call for the decriminalization of sex work. Of course, abolitionists may be quick to respond that making this argument based upon the experience of men contributes to patriarchal dynamics that focus upon men (who already experience all kinds of gender-based privileges) and uses the experiences of men to eliminate, neglect, and deny the reality of violence against women. However, as we will see, those who argue for the decriminalization of sex work do so based upon the evidence that this approach is more successful at reducing the violence women experience. The point here is simply that if we wish to talk about sex work, in all its complexity, then we need to factor in the very different experiences of very different people and we should avoid taking the experience of one subgroup of people and claiming that it is the universal experience of all people.

In this first section, we have looked at issues related to the terms deployed in this discussion (notably, “sex work,” “human trafficking,” and “prostitution”), we have looked at whose voices matter (and why and to whom), we have looked at where sex workers themselves are located within the various factions (i.e., as supports or as leaders), we have looked at singular versus diverse perspectives on the experience of sex workers, we have examined how one source (i.e., the police) that is said to help “save” women is actually often a significant source of violence against women and sex workers, and we have examined how all of this is further complicated and nuanced by capitalism’s exploitation of labour, the Canadian context of settler colonialism, and the presence of male sex workers. This, then, concludes our examination of the background material that I wish to highlight, and we are now well equipped to move on to a more stringent analysis of the two main approaches to sex work.

2. Abolitionism and Decriminalization: Summary and Comparison

In this section, I will examine the two main positions taken by parties involved in the conversation about sex work. The first position is that taken by abolitionists who dominate the anti-human-trafficking discourse (and funding), and who advocate on behalf of the so-called “Nordic Model” when it comes to creating laws around sex work. The second position is that taken by those who call for the full decriminalization of sex work based largely upon calls made from those who are currently engaged in sex work and evidence-based research related to health outcomes and human rights, and who advocate on behalf of something like the “New Zealand Model” when it comes to creating laws around sex work. Given that I have already touched on a number of key points relating to these positions in the background material above, I will be relatively brief in my summaries of the positions, before drawing a number of conclusions.

A. Abolitionism, Anti-Trafficking, and the Nordic Model

From the late 1970s until the early 1990s (when Second Wave Feminism ended and Third Wave Feminism began), there was considerable debate between feminists regarding sex, female sexuality, and how these things existed and were performed within the context of patriarchy. It is here that the foundations were laid for the feminism that inspires abolitionists who feature so prominently in conversations about human trafficking. In particular, a very heated conversation about pornography took place during this time, and it is this conversation that set the stage for subsequent conflicts with abolitionists and sex workers regarding sex, sexual exploitation, and violence.

Against those who favoured a “sex-positive” feminism (a term coined by Ellen Willis in 1981), a number of feminist scholars and activists studied pornography and concluded that the patriarchal nature of our context means that female sexuality is constructed to disempower women and transform them into objects that exist to sexually gratify men, thereby annulling the possibility of female consent and irreversibly damaging women who are both literally and figuratively fucked along the way. Consequently, these scholars and activists wanted pornography to be made illegal and lobbied governments to try and enforce this change. Hence the abolitionist label. And what was taken as true in relation to pornography was then also taken to be true for women involved in sex work. Therefore, the final goal of the abolitionist camp was and still remains the abolition of any kind of sexual-service-for-money transaction.[52]

The problem for the abolitionists is that the popularity of their foundational position likely climaxed in or around 1987 (when Andrea Dworkin published Intercourse, Catharine MacKinnon published Feminism Unmodified, and Alice Schwarzer began her PorNO campaign). As Third Wave Feminism has gained strength and both extended and sharpened its analysis (bringing in transfeminism and intersectionality, and whole-heartedly embracing sex-positivity), anti-porn feminists were increasingly viewed as puritanical, censorious, and authoritarian, ultimately encouraging repressive State control over female sexuality and female bodies. Furthermore, the appearance of “feminist porn” (pornography made by women for women) seems to make the original arguments posed by women like Dworkin and MacKinnon increasingly implausible.[53] This does not mean that the anti-porn brand of feminism has entirely disappeared (after all, Diana E. H. Russell published Making Violence Sexy in 1993 and Against Pornography in 1994, and Gail Dines published Pornography: The Production and Consumption of Inequality in 1997 and followed it up in 2010 with Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality). What it does mean, however, is that this brand of activism began to lose much public ground and credibility, and faced an increasingly dire crisis of relevance and funding.

Therefore, the discourse related to human trafficking (narrowly focused on trafficking as it pertains to sexual violence and sexual exploitation) that has become increasingly prominent since the early 2000s has been a major boon to the abolitionist camp.[54] It has restored an ever growing public audience to them, it has reconnected them with powerful political and financial (and law-enforcing) parties, and it has allowed them to rebrand themselves from being popularly understood as “the party that thinks sex sucks” to “the party that opposes the sexual slave trade.” Jessica Neuwirth, a founder of the abolitionist group Equality Now is quite explicit about this. In a 2008 interview with sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein, she notes how “an earlier wave of consciousness about exploitation … took both pornography and exploitation together” but failed to succeed and, in fact, alienated abolitionists from wealthy and powerful liberal allies.[55] Therefore, as Bernstein goes on to explain, “[b]y re-situating these issues in terms of the ‘traffic in women’ overseas and as a violation of international commitments to women’s human rights … [Neuwirth and others] were able to wage the same sexual battles unopposed.”[56]

Curiously, in this current war against human trafficking, abolitionists who considerable themselves radical feminists find themselves allying or overlapping with religious groups, notably Christian social reformers (whose efforts to “rescue fallen women” go back well over a century). One of the results of this is that Conservative, heteronormative, and historically quite patriarchal groups (like the Salvation Army) have now garnered considerable public support and funding (despite arguments made by many sex workers’ rights organizations that this redirects public funds to organizations that harm sex workers by excluding trans or gender non-conforming women, by shaming them, and by forcing them into a victim narrative if they wish to receive help).[57]

With this history in mind, we are well situated to examine the key tenets of the abolitionist position. These are: (1) that women and girls involved in sex work are victims who do not or cannot freely choose to engage in that work themselves (and so the very language of “sex work” as “work” is rejected); (2) that the context of sex work is inherently and often brutally violent and exploitative; (3) that health-based approaches are focused on the health of male buyers, not the health of trafficked women and girls; and (4) that decriminalization of sex work would increase human trafficking and the violence and exploitation experienced by women and girls. I will briefly examine each of these in more detail.

First, abolitionists present all women who engage in sex work as victims. They are victims of traffickers, victims of pimps, and victims of male buyers. If the experience of victimization is not immediately obvious in the life of any sex workers, well, they were probably victims of male-initiated sexual violence when they were girls.[58] This is important because, from the abolitionist perspective, these past and present experiences of violence overwhelm, coerce, or annihilate a woman’s ability to consent to sex work. Hence, for example, LAWC argues that “women enslaved in the sex trade … are trafficked” and goes on to state that LAWC “does NOT believe women “choose” to be prostituted/trafficked.” Instead, LAWC “believes it is the choice of men to rape, torture, exploit and violate trafficked women.”[59] Here, of course, one should be quick to agree that a person cannot consent to be raped (and even if the rapist makes the raped person say, “yes, I want this,” that is a coerced statement and does not equal consent). However, given that it is not always immediately obvious, even to the sex worker, that the exchange of sexual services for money is always rape, LAWC argues that this is because this form of rape has been normalized, that women and girls are “groomed” by perpetrators and “a sexually toxic culture” (pornography being just one example) to such an extent that their core beliefs, values, and identity are altered and they “appear to consent to their own exploitation or violation.”[60] In other words, whether it is because they were raped as children, groomed by a pimp, misled by a porn video, or broken by a trafficker, some sex workers go on to internalize the discourse of their abusers (just as, for example, the victim of domestic violence who believes that she deserves to be hit because dinner wasn’t warm enough has internalized the discourse of her abuser). Thus, while women may think they are making free, informed decisions when they consent to exchange sexual services for money, this is not actually true. This may be obvious in situations where children are being sold to men for sex (given that the Law does not acknowledge the ability of children to consent to sex with adults, because the power differential between adults and children is too great for free, informed consent to be possible), but LAWC and other abolitionist groups argue that this is also true of every adult woman who is engaged in selling sex. Consequently, whenever women with lived experience speak at abolitionist events, they always present narratives that focus upon their status as victims and their experiences (often utterly horrific) of victimization.

To this first point, abolitionists also add a second point—that the context in which sex work is practiced is inherently, necessarily, and egregiously violent and exploitative. A large body of anecdotal evidence is brought to play here. There is certainly no shortage of (legitimate, honest, and truthful) survivor stories that have been collected by abolitionist groups. Areas of focus tend to be personal experiences of physical and sexual violence, forcible confinement, connections with ruthless members of organized crime networks, forced abortions, the inability to access most of the financial profits of one’s own labour (as pimps or traffickers take most of the money and then charge sex workers for things like food, rent, clothing, and protection, creating a system akin to indentured slavery), and the unequally gendered nature of this. However, beyond the worst of the worst experiences, the very act of engaging in a financial transaction that is sexual in nature is said to be a violation. Such transactions are described as a form of “commercial sexual exploitation” that violates the human rights of women.[61] Indeed, none of the rights that workers enjoy in other environments—from opportunities for advancement to professional development opportunities, to pensions and benefit plans—are present here.[62] Thus, over against those who use the discourse of human rights to call for the full decriminalization of sex work, abolitionists argue that “[o]ne cannot have the right to violation. One only has the right to be free from violation.”[63] This argument is further reinforced by two points. First, abolitionists provide vivid descriptions of the “average day” in the life of a sex worker who is “servicing between 5 and 7 male customer a day who penetrate the woman vaginally, anally or orally. That is a minimum of 25 men in a week.”[64] Such descriptions are then paired with statements from researchers like Michaela Huber, the director of the German Trauma and Dissociation Society, who states that:

To allow strangers to penetrate one’s body, it is necessary to extinguish some natural phenomena: fear, shame, disgust, strangeness, contempt and self-blame. In their place, these women put indifference, neutrality, a functional conception of penetration, a reinterpretation of this act as a “job” or “service.” In fact, these women dissociate.[65]

Therefore, these descriptions are designed to shock people with bourgeois moral sensibilities, and drive home the second observation—that nobody, not even those who advocate for the view of sex work as work, wants their wives, sisters, female friends, or children pursue careers in this field.[66]

The third point, which abolitionists have only begun to emphasize in recent years as the discourse of health has gained an increasingly hegemonic position for determining funding priorities within social services, is that those focused on health-based outcomes are focused on outcomes that favour male buyers. In this regard, CATW has argued that safer sex and condom distribution programs exist to provide “a healthier supply of prostituted women to male buyers” and actually help brothels  abandon “infected women” and replace them with “a fresh stock of female bodies.”[67] In other words, pimps and traffickers only care about the health needs of those whom they victimize to the extent that it helps them protect “supply for the demand.”[68] CATW further argues that because “the industry” exists to meet any and all desires of buyers, the sex industry is not concerned about the health of “victims” (i.e., all women involved in exchanging sexual services for money) or the acts of violence perpetrated against them.[69] Consequently, rather than focusing on health-based outcomes that favour male buyers, CATW argues that a “more ethical and effective public health response would promote the health and safety of women within the sex industry, at the same time that it works to dismantle the sex industry.”[70]

Finally, the fourth central tenet of the abolitionist position is the assertion that the full decriminalization of sex work will further increase human trafficking, violence against women, and the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Here, the argument is that legalization (by lifting restrictions on pimping, purchasing sexual services, and operating brothels) makes it easier for traffickers to appear as legitimate business owners who can mask trafficking under the guise of “migrant sex work” presented in a manner comparable to migrant farm work or migrant domestic work.[71] Furthermore, the argument is made that legalization would normalize sexual exploitation—telling up-and-coming generations of men and boys that “women are sexual commodities and that prostitution is harmless fun”—and remove any restrictions that currently prevent the sexual exploitation of women and children from expanding.[72] Not only this but legalization would divert public attention and funds from much needed exit programs for women and children who have been trafficked (because, or so goes abolitionist logic, if sex work is a legitimate job, why would an exit program be needed?).[73] Therefore, abolitionists argue that “sex industry lobbyists” and others who favour decriminalization are engaged in a fourfold act of denial and consequently promote a series of six “false distinctions that are not reflected in the reality of the lives of women and children in the sex industry.”[74] Specifically, “sex industry lobbyists” deny: (1) the violence committed against women before they become prostituted; (2) the physical and mental consequences caused by prostitution; (3) the violence women experience in situations of prostitution; and (4) the harm that prostitution causes society, the relationship between men and women, and the family.[75] The six (occasionally overlapping and repetitive) false distinctions that follow from these denials are: (1) the false distinction between prostitution and human trafficking; (2) the false distinction between “free” and “forced” prostitution; (3) the false distinction between supposedly safe legal, indoor prostitution and the lack of safety prostituted women experience today; (4) the false distinction between adult and child prostitution (“there are no separate “markets for children or for trafficked women and girls … The simple fact is that where sex industries are tolerated, sexual exploitation of children is facilitated”); (5) the false distinction between women who freely choose sex work and women who do not (i.e., nobody freely chooses to be prostituted); and (6) the false distinction between porn practices that are harmful to women and some imaginary “soft and harmless” side of the porn industry.[76] Therefore, abolitionists conclude, that the only option that seriously addresses the reality of violence against women and girls, is to pursue legislation that does not criminalize women but criminalizes those who harm and exploit them, until sex work itself is finally abolished and women and girls are finally liberated (or, at least, more liberated given that the patriarchy persists in other domains of life).

This legal approach is known as the “Nordic Model” following the passage of Sweden’s Violence Against Women Act and Sex Purchase Act in 1999. Since then some form of this model has been adopted by Norway, Iceland, British-occupied Ireland, France, the Republic of Ireland, Israeli-occupied Palestine, and in some regions that have been colonized by the United States of America. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper introduced the Nordic Model to Canadian-occupied territories and in 2014 it passed into Law as the “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” (PCEPA). The Harper Government introduced the Law because the Supreme Court of Canada had released the Bedford Decision which found the following three legal prohibitions violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: (1) the prohibition on keeping or being in a “bawdy house” for purposes of prostitution; (2) the prohibition on living on the avails of prostitution; and, (3) the prohibition on communicating in public for purposes of prostitution.[77] Therefore, no longer allowed to criminalize activities related to an individual selling sexual services, the Government of Canada adopted the abolitionist perspective and chose to view sex workers as victims rather than as criminals, while continuing to pursue the full eradication of sex work in Canada.[78] Thus, “Bill C-36 maintains that the best way to avoid prostitution’s harms is to bring an end to its practice.”[79] Hence, government funding is directed into the following areas: policing and law enforcement (now ostensibly focused on rescuing women and catching pimps, traffickers, and buyers), public awareness campaigns to re-educate the public to view prostitution as male violence against women and children, and services that assist women in escaping from sexual exploitation.[80] Thus, LAWC concludes: “The Nordic Model is the only model that offers prostituted women hope of a life where they can dream of a future free from violence and abuse.”[81]

Furthermore, given that this model has been in place in Sweden for many years, proponents of the Model make the following claims about its success. The Nordic Model is said to have: (1) successfully deterred traffickers so that the “number of foreign women now being trafficked into Sweden for sex work is almost nil”; (2) successfully aided “sixty percent of the prostitutes in Sweden” in exiting prostitution through well-funded support programs; and (3) successfully deterred purchasers (with some surveys showing that 85% of men who might purchase sex report that the risk of arrest is an important influence on their choice and other surveys showing that buyers are 70% “less likely to re-offend” after arrest).[82] Thus, putting this into the language politicians and funders love, the claim is made that the Nordic Model is “effective, scalable, and efficient at preventing sex trafficking.”[83]

B. Decriminalization, De-Stigmatization, and Healthcare

However, many people—from evidence-based healthcare researchers, to human rights organizations, to sex worker led and organized groups—contest the claims made by those who have built careers out of advocating on behalf of the Nordic Model. In particular, four central arguments are made against the Nordic Model: (1) that it arises from biased research and falsified statistics; (2) that, despite claiming to deploy law enforcement to “rescue” women and prosecute male buyers, it is female sex workers who continue to overwhelmingly suffer at the hands of the police; (3) that the Nordic Model creates a system that is detrimental to the broader health and safety of sex workers; and (4) that the Nordic Model further stigmatizes sex work and sex workers. I will briefly examine each of these four arguments in more detail, before looking at the alternative that is overwhelmingly favoured by sex workers who are currently engaged in sex work and who are organizing themselves around this issue—that is, the full decriminalization of sex work. I will then examine the example of one country, Aotearoa (so-called “New Zealand”), which listened to sex workers and decriminalized sex work in a more (but not fully) complete way, and what results this produced. Finally, I will conclude this subsection with a final comment about anti-trafficking efforts within the context of decriminalization.

First, defenders of the Nordic Model are accused of engaging in biased research and falsifying statistics. Notable examples of this include: (1) asserting that the Nordic Model successfully decreases the number of women trafficked in a particular State despite the absence of concrete evidence of that (these claims are based upon self-acknowledged “educated guesses” made by “experts”—who turn out to be public servants and advocates whose political careers or program funding are heavily invested in the success of the Nordic Model); (2) the denial of evidence that shows that arguments based upon the “deterrence of buyers” are premised upon heavily inflated stats or flat-out ignorance or avoidance of studies that show buyers are not deterred by the Nordic Model (but, instead, as we will see, find ways to continuing purchasing sex that place sex workers at greater risk of harm); (3) that operate with a presupposition that all sex work is equivalent to sexual violence and human trafficking (i.e., that this is assumed a priori rather then extrapolated a posteriori based upon the evidence); (4) that also ignores, dismisses, or attempts to discredit counter-evidence offered by sex workers themselves, as these sex workers are said to be operating under a “false consciousness” or are “not representative” although these abolitionist claims are simply asserted and not proven; (5) that the rapidly expanding body of evidence which demonstrates the harm criminalization (of buyers) does to sex workers, along with other factors that contribute to the violence sex workers face (from public stigma to misogynistic police cultures, to the impact of colonialism, and the influence of paternalistic social services) is entirely ignored; and, ultimately, (6) that hard evidence that the Nordic Model both decreases the harm experienced by sex workers and decreases the “sex industry” itself is lacking and these things are asserted (rather than proven by evidence-based research) and supported by a number of highly emotional (and often extremely brutal and tragic) anecdotes.[84]

Turning to the conclusions that we can draw from aforementioned evidence-based research leads to the second point. The evidence demonstrates that, under the Nordic Model, it is sex workers themselves who are the ones who suffer most at the hands of police and within the judicial system. In Sweden, when the Nordic Model was first implemented, studies demonstrated that sex workers faced increased scrutiny, stigma, and discrimination from police forces as well as increases in the violence, harassment, abuse, and coercion they reported experiencing from individual police officers.[85] These findings are consistent with what studies have found in other States where the Nordic Model has been implemented. For example, after the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) successfully lobbied for the Illinois Safe Children Act (SCA), which purported to target traffickers and buyers instead of criminalizing “prostituted persons,” studies of prostitution-related felonies between 2008 (when the SCA was implemented) and 2011, show that 97% of the charges were made against sex workers, with a 68% increase of charges brought against sex workers during that same period of time. Similarly, in the Republic of Ireland, there was a significant increase in reports of violence against sex workers after the Nordic Model entered into legislation. Specifically, sex workers reported a 54% increase of the crimes committed against them between March 2017 and March 2018 (compared to the previous year) and reports of violent crime were up 77% during that same time period.[86]  Furthermore, it is hard to know what kind of impact the Irish legislation is having on traffickers, given that the Irish police have a long history of charging individual sex workers with “brothel keeping” (even though these sex workers were the ones doing the work, and the only work they were profiting from was their own—in other words, they were doing independent indoor sex work but were charged with brothel keeping—and sentences for this have now doubled with the implementation of the Nordic Model).[87]Thus, wherever the Nordic Model is implemented, alleged “victims” of human trafficking are frequently detained, arrested, charged with criminal offences (not necessarily related to sex work), and, if they have entered the country illegally, instead of receiving support, they are usually deported.[88] The police operations that result in the violent raids that precipitate these arrests and deportations are frequently organized in collaboration with abolitionist social services, which gain the trust of clients and pass critical information on to the police.[89] High levels of surveillance, invasive searches, and persistent police harassment can also spill over into the lives of friends and family members of sex workers and can limit sex workers’ ability to access safe housing, healthcare, and other services.[90] Furthermore, even when the police try to target buyers, they attempt to get buyer information by putting pressure on sex workers to disclose and to testify against their clients, thereby placing sex workers at greater risk of harm because: (1) buyers become unwilling to reveal their identities to sex workers; and (2) this limits the autonomy of sex workers and makes sex workers increasingly reliant on managers who function as intermediates between them and the buyers.[91] Thus, to put it rather mildly, the evidence consistently demonstrates that wherever any part of sex work is criminalized, one of the results is the further “alienation of sex workers from law enforcement.”[92]

However, and this is the third point, the betrayal and exploitation of sex workers by police officers, and the harm that this causes sex workers, is but one of the most striking examples of the ways in which the Nordic Model implements a system that, in general, is detrimental to the health and safety of sex workers.[93] This is a point that has come through strongly in research done by those who approach sex work from a public health lens. In other words, the people who have produced this body of evidence are not people initially situated in this or that camp in relation to sex work or the so-called “feminist sex wars” that preceeded the entrenchment of these camps in the 1980s. Rather than beginning with arguments related to the morality of sex work qua sex work, or of this-or-that understanding of feminism, freedom or dis/empowerment, they begin with questions related to the health and fundamental human rights of those who engage in sex work, asking what produces negative outcomes and what produces positive outcomes.[94] Furthermore, operating from the public health model, they sought scientific measures for evaluating the answers provided to these questions, producing a significant body of evidence-based research. The reason why abolitionists tend to ignore this is because the evidence produced consistently demonstrates that the Nordic Model is harmful to the health of sex workers. Thus, as we saw above, abolitionists try to dismiss the health-based approach (for example, campaigns to make condoms freely and easily accessible to sex workers), arguing that it is solely driven to protect the health of buyers, and is entirely unconcerned about the health of women whose bodies are considered disposable. But, even in relation to this point, the evidence contradicts abolitionist claims. For example, when it comes to encouraging safer sex practices (condom use and so on), the research shows that sex workers face a far greater risk of contracting a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI), or a blood-borne illness from buyers, than buyers are at risk of contracting these things from sex workers.[95] Therefore, sex workers are also those who benefit the most from the increase of public awareness around safer sex practices and the increase of access to things like condoms. However, because the Nordic Model criminalizes buyers, buyers tend to dislike using condoms, or being with someone who has a supply of condoms, because the presence of condoms has been used as evidence against buyers when they are prosecuted.[96] Thus, we see both that the evidence contradicts the claims made by abolitionists and that, in fact, the model favoured by the abolitionists actually does the most harm to the people about whom they claim to care.

But this exposure to higher risk services (in this case, “unprotected sex”) is just one of many factors that increase the negative health and safety outcomes sex workers experience under the Nordic Model. Because buyers fear being prosecuted, sex workers are required to work from more isolated (and therefore dangerous) outdoor locations at more secluded times, in circumstances that prevent them from being able to properly vet clients (e.g., being forced to make quick decisions as to whether or not they get into a car with someone), and this also reduces the bargaining power they have with potential clients; implementation of the Nordic Model has also led to sex workers being evicted from their homes (or having increased difficulty in attaining safe housing), at times it has led to increased competition due to a perceived reduction in clients, resulting in a driving down of rates, and it has led to an increase in the surveillance and harassment sex workers experience not only from the police but also from business owners and members of the general public which, in turn, can lead to increased pressure to engage in other criminalized activities in order to make up for lost income.[97] Furthermore, while criminalization may act as a deterrent to some who are inclined to purchase sex, it has been found that it does not act as a deterrent to those who abuse sex workers, and so it can increase the relative proportion of buyers who are abusive, while also placing additional pressure on sex workers to accept those buyers.[98] At the same time,  the Nordic Model denies sex workers the protection of labour laws, limits their options, impinges on their sexual autonomy, and legitimates discrimination.[99] One of the most tragic outcomes of this is that women who are surveilled and “rescued” by police operations are also far more likely to have their children removed from their care—which is both devastating to the mother and the children (while also putting those children at risk of experiencing all the violence and negative health outcomes that we now know are associated with foster care). Critically, the evidence also shows that, due to all of these factors, sex workers are much less likely to reach out to the authorities when they become aware of instances of human trafficking (and, it should be observed, sex workers are those who are best equipped to be able to recognize this).[100] Thus, as Melissa Gira Grant concludes:

It is not sex work that exposes sex workers to violence; it is our willingness to abandon sex workers to violence in an attempt to control their behavior. Prohibition makes prostitution more dangerous than it would otherwise be by pushing it underground and stripping sex workers of legal protection. The fight over that policy is about more than just strains between generations of feminism. It is about an unholy marriage of feminism with the conservatism and police power that many feminists claim to stand against.[101]

This then leads to my fourth point—the ways in which the Nordic Model reinforces and further entrenches the stigma experienced by sex workers. Stigma—whether that be macro-level stigma enshrined in national or cultural Laws, regulations, and policies, or meso-level stigma embodied in institutions and their actors and the systems that govern them, or micro-level stigma like those that arise from the public or through lateral violence—is a fundamental determinant of health and well-being, on par with things like class, gender, race, and a person or group’s level of education.[102] Sex workers are frequently the target of stigmatizing language (“slut,” “whore,” and so on), and there are often additional layers of racist, classist, homoantagonistic and transantagonistic stigmas layered onto this.[103] Surveys of sex workers in States where the Nordic Model has been implemented demonstrate a significant increase in stigma (and the discriminatory practices that accompany it) after the criminalization of buyers was legislated.[104] In such a context, the general public steps up its discriminatory and stigmatizing practices.[105] But, what is of particular concern to those who study this matter from a health-based perspective, are the ways in which stigma leads to an increase of experiences of discrimination from healthcare providers, leading to sex workers becoming less and less inclined to access critical health services.[106] Consequently, health-based researchers along with human rights organizations are in agreement with sex worker led organizations that the de-stigmatization of sex work is critical to the health and wellbeing of sex workers. Decriminalization, wherein sex work becomes viewed as a routine economic activity, is put forward as the solution most likely to succeed.[107]

In fact, the full decriminalization of sex work is the position consistently embraced by sex worker led and organized groups.[108] “Full decriminalization” in this context refers to “the removal of all criminal and administrative prohibitions and penalties on sex work, including laws targeting clients and third parties.”[109] Once again, human rights focused organizations, and healthcare-oriented organizations tend to come to the same conclusion. Thus, full decriminalization is also the position taken by the World Health Organization, The United Nations Development Programme, The United Nations Population Fund (formerly, UNFPA), the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, and the Global Commission on HIV and the Law.[110] Once decriminalized and treated as “real work,” those who engage in sex work could receive both the protection and benefits of labour laws that are aimed at preventing unsafe, exploitative, or harmful business practices.[111] This would also permit environmental changes (allowing sex workers to move indoors to more secure environments with proper client-vetting protocols and security on hand if needed), which would seriously mitigate the risks they currently face.[112] This would further ensure that the human rights of sex workers were being respected and that they had fair, equitable, and non-discriminatory access to healthcare providers.[113] In fact, to pick just one health-based outcome, evidence published in 2015 in the medical journal, Lancet, shows that decriminalization of sex work would likely avert 33-46% of HIV infections among sex workers (contrary to the claims made by abolitionists, this is a very good health outcome for women who exchange sexual services for money). [114] Finally, this shift in legislation has the potential to remarkably improve the relationship between sex workers and law enforcement (as the legislation in Aotearoa examined below demonstrates), leading to a feedback loop that produces even safer conditions as sex workers feel safer reporting violent or abusive clients, and also feel safer reporting concerns they may have about human trafficking or the sexual exploitation of children.[115] Thus, summarizing many of these key points, South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality, came to the following conclusions in their federally-commissioned position paper on sex work, wherein they recommend the decriminalization of sex work:

  1. Decriminalization will deliver sex workers’ constitutional and human rights to free choice of work;

  2. Decriminalization will deliver sex workers’ constitutional and human rights to form unions and challenge unfair labour conditions.

  3. Decriminalization will deliver sex workers’ constitutional and human right to freedom from discrimination.

  4. Decriminalization will deliver sex workers’ constitutional and human right to the highest attainable standard of health.

  5. Decriminalization will deliver sex workers’ constitutional and human rights to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention, the right to be free from violence, and the right to bodily and psychological integrity.

  6. Decriminalization will preserve sex workers’ fundamental right to human dignity.[116]

Aotearoa (the territories colonized by so-called “New Zealand”) is a country that has listened closely to sex workers and groups led by sex workers (especially the “New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective”) and, as a result, the “Prostitution Reform Act” (PRA) became Law in 2003.[117] The PRA operates from a human rights perspective, promotes the occupational health and safety of sex workers (and views this as a part of a broader commitment to community or public health), and has safeguards in place to protect sex workers from exploitation and to prevent the prostitution or trafficking of people under the age of 18.[118] Independent academic studies of the PRA over the last sixteen years have consistently affirmed the benefits of this approach. For example, an independent review of sex workers in Aotearoa shows that over 90% of sex workers said the PRA gave them employment rights, legal rights, and health and safety rights; 64% found it easier to refuse clients whom they identified as troubling; and 57% said that police attitudes towards sex worker had changed for the better.[119] Furthermore, research demonstrates that decriminalization through the PRA has resulted in higher condom use, lower STI prevalence, increased access to sexual (and other) health services, and a decrease in the stigma and discrimination that sex workers experience from healthcare and other service providers.[120] Not only this but the central fears associated with the decriminalization of sex worker have been shown to be unfounded. There was no discernible increase in the number of people entering into sex work, there was no discernible increase in demand, and human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children did not increase.[121] It is no wonder, then, that this is a model frequently favoured by sex workers in Canadian-occupied territories.[122]

The point made about human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children is important. Sex workers and those who favour decriminalization acknowledge that such things exist and take place, but they are equally adamant that decriminalization creates a context where human trafficking and sexual exploitation can be better dealt with. In fact, a significant amount of financial resources, as well as law enforcement time and efforts, could be freed up and made exponentially more productive (if such a thing is possible for law enforcement) if governments and services stopped saying that all sex work is trafficking or exploitation.[123] Furthermore, as stated above, sex workers are often the people best-positioned to identify when trafficking or exploitation is taking place, and the improved relationship with law enforcement that decriminalization produces increases the likelihood of sex workers feeling safe enough to bring information forward.[124] Finally, the current anti-trafficking discourse paints a certain kind of person as the universal victim of trafficking and tends to neglect others who do not fit this image,  but, as Melissa Gira Grant observes, “[o]versimplified portrayals of trafficking can have devastating consequences for those who are trafficked.”[125] Thus, those who favour decriminalization do not do so at the expense of those who are trafficked and exploited. They do so, in part, because they believe a more nuanced perspective, paired with improved community relationships and the freeing up of critical resources, will do a better job than the Nordic Model of meeting the needs of trafficked and exploited people.

C. Taking Sides

This overview has given us the information required to engage in the (regrettable but necessary) task of taking sides in order to try and be useful friends of, allies to, and accomplices with people who engage in sex work. Listening to the voices of active sex workers, examining the conclusions drawn from evidence-based research, and avoiding narratives that bleach out the complexities involved in what is truly a complex situation, all lead to the conclusion that one should advocate for full decriminalization. Unfortunately, then, one must disagree with (and sometimes actively oppose) the position taken by abolitionists. This is not to say that abolitionists are wrong to oppose human trafficking or the sexual exploitation of children. Many abolitionists are doing good work with female survivors of sexual (and other) violence. The core problem is that the position taken by abolitionists (apart from being transantogonistic, forcing all women to play victim roles that all women do not identify with, and actively working alongside of groups who do considerable harm to women) equates human trafficking and sexual exploitation with the experience of every single person involved in selling sexual services for money. I simply do not see how one can draw this conclusion after listening to the voices of women (and men and trans and intersexed and gender nonconforming folx) who are involved in this work. Essentially, the abolitionist position is hopelessly lost because of the way it views all sex work as rape and as an act that obliterates a woman’s own agency (making consent impossible). However, this fundamental error leads to people involved in sex work being further harmed by the proponents and enforcers of the Nordic Model. Consequently, I agree with those who favour the full decriminalization of sex work both because of the ways in which this improves the lives of sex workers in significant and measurable ways, and because this is actually a better way to combat trafficking and sexual exploitation. In fact, the entire civic and political community is bound to be healthier if this change takes place. Therefore, because it is impossible to agree with both sides, and because trying to maintain some kind of idealized neutrality would be a useless act (that actually contributes to the perpetuation of an oppressive status quo), I believe that it is important to thoughtfully and carefully, but also boldly, vocally, and concretely support the full decriminalization of sex work. Granted, some people and groups are bound to be upset by this but if you are trying to be an ally simply in order to feel like all oppressed people everywhere (or their self-proclaimed advocates and rescuers) are your bffs, then you’re probably in it for the wrong reasons and best go back to rethinking why you do what you do and whose needs you are really serving (because they might just be your own). Having spent some time thinking about these things myself, the Position Statement I have proposed at the beginning of the paper is my best effort to be useful. I hope that others find it useful as well.

3. Conclusion: Root Causes, Upstream Interventions, and Smashing the Patriarchy

Sex work, as we have now seen, is real work. But, as with all other forms of labour and human experiences more broadly, it does not take place in a void or in a neutral context. It takes place within contexts where specific systems of meaning have been naturalized, where various ideological and moral discourses compete for credibility, and where the aleatory distribution of power has been designed to favour some people and not others. In particular, as we saw in the first section, thinking carefully about sex work (and then acting accordingly), in the Canadian-occupied context requires careful thought about the ways in which colonization affects the experiences of Indigenous peoples—especially women and two-spirited folx—the ways in which capitalism affects labour, the ways in which poverty and isolation (also products of contemporary capitalism) limit a person’s options in terms of education and employment, access to non-transactional sex, and the ways in which patriarchy influences gendered relationships. I wish to conclude by re-examining some of these factors in a self-critical manner.

By paying close attention to the context of Canadian settler colonialism, Julie Kaye observes how any approach (whether that be the Nordic Model or decriminalization) that relies upon the Law or legal solutions in a State where the Law is constructed to annihilate Indigenous peoples as sovereign Indigenous peoples (and, instead, either kill them, incarcerate them, or assimilate them into being an “ethnic” or “cultural” Canadian minority) will never get to the root causes associated with sex work and the trafficking of Indigenous peoples in Canadian-occupied territories.[126] In this context—where parties on all sides can argue that they are working towards the liberation of an oppressed group while simultaneously reinforcing the very structures that ensure the perpetuation of oppression (i.e., by looking to Canadian Law for the answer)—Kaye warns against non-governmental organizations that position themselves as “keepers of legitimate understandings of trafficking” (hence the fees they can charge for sharing this expertise with others) and see themselves as addressing sexist or colonial legacies of violence while “rendering invisible the broader structural constraints faced by the women on behalf of whom they seek to intervene.”[127] Consequently, those who wish to acknowledge the sovereignty of sex workers over their own bodies, must also work to overturn any other forces (like settler colonialism) that wish to deny Indigenous sovereignty in other ways—and if we try to do the former while failing at the latter, then we may need to reexamine our tactics, commitments, and alliances, and try again.

However (and this is a critical point that I think is frequently overlooked or understated), when discussing “root causes” or “upstream solutions” to matters that are considered precipitating factors in a person’s entry into sex work—be those alternative education programs (that take seriously the evidence that a lot of people do not so much “drop out” of school as they are driven out due to experiences of discrimination, violence, and teaching models that do not work for them), job training programs, preventing the clawing-back of workers’ rights that is happening around the world, providing additional support for children in their homes, implementing evidence-based best practices in relation to substance use, breaking down racist, misogynistic, colonial, or transantagonistic social and institutional structures, and so on—one should be about subtly imposing a moralizing discourse onto the matter of sex work qua sex work.[128] The issue is not that sometimes these elements are factors in a person entering into sex work; rather, the issue is that sometimes these elements are factors in a person’s unwilling or coerced entry into exchanging sexual services for money via human trafficking or sexual exploitation. Upstream solutions are critical for bettering the overall quality of life experienced by people and communities, but we should be careful to ensure that we are not actually aiming to eradicate sex work altogether due to the lingering influence of abolitionist values or the Judeo-Christian morality that structured Canadian society not that long ago.

As I have worked on this paper, I have consistently reflected upon a piece of art that I purchased at a fundraiser for SafeSpace London. It is a needlepoint work that says, “Smash the patriarchy.” But the patriarchy is a pretty insidious thing. It wears many masks and if it can’t force itself upon you as an unencumbered misogynist, it will circle its way back around and kick down your door, screaming and waving a gun around and claiming that it is there to save you. But, either way, there’s a good chance you’re getting fucked. Therefore, in my own effort to assist with smashing the patriarchy, I would like to conclude by returning to the fourfold denial that abolitionists argue are irredeemable problems with the approach taken by sex workers who pursue decriminalization.

First, abolitionists claim that “sex industry lobbyists” deny the violence committed against women before they become “prostitutes” who lack the agency or ability to consent and who need to be rescued. But I believe that it is the patriarchy that wishes to paint all women as victims who are somehow scarred, who cannot discern what is best for themselves, and who need others to rescue them.

Second, abolitionists claim that “sex industry lobbyists” deny the physical and mental consequences caused by prostitution. But the evidence shows that a great amount of the physical and mental consequences caused by prostitution are a result of criminalization via the Nordic Model. I believe that it is the patriarchy that is in the habit of harming women and then trying to make it look like the women themselves (i.e., the “sex industry lobbyists” who are actually sex workers organizing for themselves) are to blame for this harm.

Third, abolitionists claim that “sex industry lobbyists” deny the violence women experience in situations of prostitution, but the response from sex workers is that all labour, within the domain of capitalism is increasingly precarious and exploited; I believe that it is the patriarchy that tells women that they cannot use sex to create a better alternative for themselves in a world full of shitty options.

Fourth, abolitionists claim that “sex industry lobbyists deny the harm that prostitution causes society, the relationship between men and women, and the family.” The evidence from Aotearoa flat-out contradicts this claim but, taking things one step further, I would like to suggest that there is nothing at all wrong with doing things to destroy a society that is structured around relationships between cis-gendered men and cis-gendered women rooted in the heteronormative nuclear family. We’ve all seen the world that kind of society produces—it is a world at war, a world that is dying, a world where trans, queer, and gender non-conforming people are sacrificed along with any others who don’t play along.  It is a world where impoverished people are considered populations to be managed and continually forced from their homes to make way for real estate developers. It is a world where Black lives don’t matter.  So, if liberation looks like the downfall of certain social forms, certain gendered relational priorities, and certain ways of being family, I say that those things cannot happen soon enough. Fuck the patriarchy. And if you get paid to fuck the patriarchy, hey, that’s even better. Those who do so are finding their way out of the desert that the patriarchy has created. And they are doing so by making it rain.


[1] See Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), “Sex Work in Canada: The Public Health Perspective,” December 2014 available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[2] See Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa,” August 2013; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019); and Dan Allman, “M is for Mutual A is for Acts: Male Sex Work and AIDS in Canada.” Health Canada/AIDS Vancouver/Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver/HIV Social, Behavioural and Epidemiological Studies Unit, University of Toronto (1999); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[3] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada”; and Allman, “M is for Mutual A is for Acts.”

[4] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada.”

[5] See CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa”; London Abused Women’s Centre (LAWC), “Prostitution Legislation – A Way to Shift the Culture through a Three Prong Approach” (2014); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019); Allman, “M is for Mutual A is for Acts”; and Monica O’Connor and Grainne Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking: A Briefing Handbook.” Prepared for the Joint Project Coordinated by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (CATW) and the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) on Promoting Preventative Measures to Combat Trafficking in Human Beings for Sexual Exploitation: A Swedish and United States Governmental and Non-Governmental Organisation Partnership (2006); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[6] See the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (CATW), “Prostitution is Not “Sex Work,”” (Feb 2011); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[7] See Demand Abolition, “Arresting Demand: Disaggregating Prostitution Laws”; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019). Here, it’s not even a matter of coercion or the lack thereof since, by this point “prostitution” itself has been defined as necessarily coercive.

[8] See Melissa Gira Grant, “The War on Sex Workers” in Reason, Feb 2013; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019); and Global Network of Sex Worker Projects (NSWP), “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations”; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).



[11] See Tobold Rollo, “Ethos of the Ally: Deference, Dialogue, and Distance”; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019). For a longer discussion of these matters, see especially, Cindy Millstein’s edited volume, Taking Sides: Revolutionary Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism (Chico, California: AK Press, 2015).

[12] See NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations”; and Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN), “Indigenous People in the Sex Trade: Speaking for Ourselves,” (2011); available online: (accessed Jan 18, 2018).

[13] NYSHN, “Indigenous People in the Sex Trade.”

[14] NYSHN, “Indigenous People in the Sex Trade.”

[15] See, for example, Equality Now, “Survivor Stories: Real Stories. Real Change. Real Solutions.” (July 2014); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[16] See Julie Kaye, Responding to Human Trafficking: Dispossession, Colonial Violence, and Resistance Among Indigenous and Racialized Women (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

[17] Here, the language of “TERFs” and “SWERFs” (i.e., “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists” and “Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists”) is often used by those who criticize abolitionist groups but, as a cis-het male, I prefer to avoid it as my concern is not to criticize “radical feminism” (as I actually support many forms of radical feminism) but, rather, to criticize trans exclusionary or sex worker exclusionary practices. My issues, in other words, is not the specific terms (TERFs and SWERFs), as it is the observation that I think my personal context precludes me from using those terms. That said, I do use the language of “transantagonism” and “homoantagonism” rather than the terms “transphobia” or “homophobia” because I think the terms that highlight antagonism better signify the violence, hostility, and opposition that trans and queer folx experience (speaking about “phobias” or “fear,” in my opinion, does not really get to the heart of this matter).

[18] On this vulnerability, see, for example, Andrea Houston, “Trans sex workers still most vulnerable” in Xtra (Nov 8, 2011); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[19] See Michael A. Gottlieb, “What Profession has the Highest Rate of Domestic Violence?” (July 2016); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[20] See Robin Doolittle, “Unfounded: Why Police Dismiss 1 in 5 Sexual Assault Cases as Baseless” in The Globe and Mail (Feb 3, 2017); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[21] See Kim, Spencer, McPhee, “RCMP Sexual/Gender Harrassment Class Action Settlement Website” (2019); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019). See also, Brian Hill, “Number of RCMP sexual harassment, discrimination claims rise to 2,400 women” in Global News (Jan 26, 2018); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[22] See Ray Michalko, Obstruction of Justice: The Search for Truth on Canada’s Highway of Tears (Red Deer: Red Deer Press, 2016).

[23] See, for example, Beth Leighton, “Lawsuit settled over Robert Pickton murders” in The Canadian Press (Mar 17, 2014); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019). See also, Bet Leighton, “Children of Pickton’s Victims settle for $50,000 cash each” in The Globe and Mail; available online: (access Apr 4, 2019).

[24] See Raquel Fletcher, “First Nations women call for Quebec inquiry into systemic racism” in Global News (Nov 22, 2016); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[25] See Victor Malarek, The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2005).

[26] CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada.”

[27] CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada”; and Bill McCarthy, Cecilia Benoit, and Mikael Jannson, “Sex Work: A Comparative Study” in Archives of Sexual Behavior 43 (2014): 1379-1390; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[28] McCarthy, Benoit, and Jannson, “Sex Work.”

[29] McCarthy, Benoit, and Jannson, “Sex Work.”

[30] LAWC, “Prostitution Legislation.”

[31] O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[32] Dorchen Leidholdt, “Presentation to the UN Special Seminar on Trafficking, Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade,” Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (July 2011); Available online. Part One:; and Part Two: (both accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[33] See O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[34] See O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking,” and Leidholdt, “Presentation to the UN Special Seminar on Trafficking.” Noted anti-porn activist Andrea Dworkin has even argued that any sex women have with men within a context that is patriarchal (which includes our current context) will always be coercive … but most others in the abolitionist camp don’t go this far, and Dworkin’s work has largely been rejected by sex-positive forms of feminism (see CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa”).

[35] Basically, the argument here is that while a bougie white woman might (mistakenly) find it “empowering” to participate in an amateur night at the local strip club, there is nothing at all empowering about being forced into sucking cock in an alleyway due to experiences of abuse, violence, and oppression.

[36] NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations.”

[37] Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “”Well, It Should Be Changed for One, Because It’s Our Bodies.””

[38] See CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa.”

[39] I myself know what it is to suffer long-term physical injuries for selling my body. Having worked as a tree planter to pay my way through school, I essentially sold my body to the lumber mills, sustained repetitive motion injuries in my wrists, knees, and shoulders (and approximately 75% of tree planters will sustain some kind of repetitive motion injury if they work two or more seasons), but I made a lot of money doing this work, met some great people, built some character, and had some wonderful experiences, so I still don’t regret selling my body in this way!

[40] See Cecilia Benoit, S. Mikael Jannson, Michaela Smith, and Jackson Flagg, “Prostitution Stigma and Its Effects on the Working Conditions, Personal Lives, and Health of Sex Workers” in The Journal of Sex Research (Nov 2017); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019). On bullshit jobs as a feature of neoliberal capitalism see David Graeber, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[41] By reason this point I do not mean to suggest that other discourses do not also have moral foundations or commitments. After all, even the discourse of health presupposes a particular morality. Instead, some of the questions this point raises are what moral presuppositions or commitments undergird different discourses, what criteria we use to evaluate those discourses, and why (and to whom) certain moral underpinnings are favoured over certain other ones?

[42] See CPHA), “Sex Work in Canada”; and Kaye, Responding to Human Trafficking.

[43] See Sarah Hunt, “Decolonizing Sex Work: Developing an Intersectional Indigenous Approach” in Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy and Research on Sex Work in Canada. Edited by Emily Van der Meulen, Elya M. Durisin, and Victoria Love (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013): 82-100; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019). For two examples of this interweaving of colonialism and sexual violence as that played out in the sterilization of Indigenous women and in Indian Residential Schools, see Karen Stote, An Act of Genocide: Colonialism and the Sterilization of Indigenous Women (Winnipeg: Fernwood, 2015), and John S. Milloy, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999).

[44] See Hunt, “Decolonizing Sex Work”; see also Kaye, Responding to Human Trafficking.

[45] See Hunt, “Decolonizing Sex Work.”

[46] See Kaye, Responding to Human Trafficking.

[47] See Kaye, Responding to Human Trafficking. For more on racist presentations of Indigenous peoples in Canadian media, see Mark Cronlund Anderson and Carmen L. Roberston, Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2011).

[48] See Kaye, Responding to Human Trafficking. For alternatives perspectives on Canada’s role in the world (and how the colonization of Indigenous territories here paved way for Canadian practices elsewhere) see especially Todd Gordon, Imperialist Canada (Winnipeg: ARP, 2010), Yves Engler, Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation (Winnipeg: Fernwood, 2015), Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment (London: Verso, 2010), and Todd Gordon and Jeffrey R. Webber, Blood of Extraction: Canadian Imperialism in Latin America (Winnipeg: Fernwood, 2016).

[49] See Allman, “M is for Mutual A is for Acts”; and Health Initiative for Men (HIM), “Sex Worker Law Reform: Implications for Male Sex Workers in Vancouver and Beyond.” Position Paper (2016?); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[50] See Allman, “M is for Mutual A is for Acts”; and HIM, “Sex Worker Law Reform.”

[51] See HIM, “Sex Worker Law Reform.” NB: I favour the term “homoantagonism” over the more prevalent “homophobia” because, as far as I can tell, the issue is not so much that some people are afraid of gay people as it is that some people act in a hostile and violent manner towards gay people.

[52] Although, as a friend with escorting experience reminded me, while “sex work is, obviously, about sex,” people who engage in sex work also do a significant amount of emotional labour that is considered a “legitimate” form of labour when performed by other professionals (like therapists, counselors, paid cuddlers, and so on).

[53] The example of Ovidie is a particularly striking case here. A middleclass woman who was interested in choreography and the human body, Ovidie first became involved as a porn actor out of a desire to better understand the exploitation women experienced in that context. However, she ended up being hugely inspired as a feminist by other female porn actors and went on to direct and produce porn films of her own for female viewers. This is not to say that Ovidie has said nothing uncritical about the porn industry. Her 2017 documentary, Pornocracy, is highly critical—but it is critical of the industry because of the ways in which neoliberal trends of globalizing labour markets have decimates the wages, and rights of works (in other words, as explored above, the issue is not so much the sex as it is capitalism’s ability to exploit labour and, through Ovidie’s documentary we learn that adult film stars are suffering a crisis similar to that felt by American auto workers and their replacements in sweatshops in the two-thirds world).

[54] See NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations.”

[55] See Grant, “The War on Sex Workers.”

[56] Grant, “The War on Sex Workers.”

[57] See NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations.”

[58] See O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[59] LAWC, “Prostitution Legislation.”

[60] LAWC, “Prostitution Legislation.”

[61] See O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[62] As highlighted by O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[63] O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[64] O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[65] Quoted in Ingeborg Kraus, “Prostitution is Incompatible with Equality Between Men and Women,” Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (Oct 2015); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[66] Also O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[67] See O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[68] O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[69] O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[70] O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.” Emphasis added.

[71] See O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[72] Also O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[73] O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[74] See O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking.”

[75] See Kraus, “Prostitution is Incompatible with Equality Between Men and Women.”

[76] See O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking”; also {21].

[77] See

[78] I mean, really, PCEPA was formulated by the Harper Government, which never wanted to change the law in the first place and which was never a friend or ally to women (let alone to marginalized groups of women, let alone to sex workers), so it’s kind of incredible to see very vocally feminist organizations aligning themselves with the Harper Government’s legislation.

[79] See Government of Canada: Department of Justice, “Technical Paper: Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” (2017); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019). Further to this point about the Canadian shift, see CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada”; Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada (ARCC), “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights,” Position Paper #102, December 2015; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019); Cecilia Benoit, Mikael Jannson, Michaela Smith, and Jackson Flagg, “”Well, It Should Be Changed for One, Because It’s Our Bodies,” Sex Workers’ Views on Canada’s Punitive Approach to Sex Work” in Social Sciences 6.2 (2017): 1-17; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019); Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “Prostitution Stigma and Its Effects on the Working Conditions, Personal Lives, and Health of Sex Workers”; and McCarthy, Benoit, and Jannson, “Sex Work.”

[80] See LAWC, “Prostitution Legislation”; O’Connor and Healy, “The Link Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking”; and Janice G. Raymond, “Ten Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution And a Legal Response to the Demand for Prostitution” in Journal of Trauma Practice 2 (2003): 315-322; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[81] LAWC, “Prostitution Legislation.”

[82] See LAWC, “Prostitution Legislation,” and, pertaining to studies of buyers, see Demand Abolition, “Key Facts about Preventing Trafficking Victimization through “Demand Reduction””; available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019). This point about effectively deterring buyers is sometimes complicated in abolitionist discourses given the worst-case-scenario victim-narratives that are ubiquitous and the ways in which this tends to transform the presentation of men who buy sex into something monstrous. Thus, one abolitionist group argues that men who purchase sex are antisocial, lack empathy, are misogynists who want to dominate women, who have emotionless sex, and lack feelings of guilt or a conscience (see Kraus, “Prostitution is Incompatible with Equality Between Men and Women”). Thus, far form being “the nice guy next door, who just wants a little sex” prostitution is said to attract men who are “psychopaths” (also Kraus, “Prostitution is Incompatible with Equality Between Men and Women”). There is a potential conflict here between this position and the position taken that men in general (i.e., precisely “the nice guy next door”) need to be educated in order to be deterred from purchasing sex because, while they may think it is a harmless bit of fun, it is actually rape. On the reverse side of that coin, it is also unlikely that antisocial psychopaths are suddenly going to be transformed by a billboard advertisement or some other media-driven public awareness campaign (although, yes, fear of arrest could still be a factor on how people who are murderously misogynistic act—which is one of the reasons why male serial killers have often targeted sex workers [because they know the police generally will not care or bother to investigate missing sex worker cases]). Anyway, this point of tension is not mentioned in order to try and suggest that in entirely invalidates the abolitionist position (or some such thing) but rather to remind the reader that no position is entirely united and each position has various sub-parties within it who emphasize different things and who do not always agree with each other when it comes to the details.

[83] Demand Abolition, “Key Facts about Preventing Trafficking Victimization through “Demand Reduction.””

[84] See CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa”; NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations”; NYSHN, “Indigenous People in the Sex Trade”; also: Cas Mudde, “The Paternalistic Fallacy of the “Nordic Model” of Prostitution” in The Huffington Post (Dec 6, 2017); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[85] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada.”

[86] See Ugly Mugs, “Increase in Violence Against Sex Workers” (Apr 2018); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[87] See Ruairi Casey, “Does the Nordic Model work? What happened when Ireland criminalised buying sex”  in NewStatesmanAmerica (Mar 26, 2018); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019). Note that between 2008 and 2013, more than 90% of people charged with “brothel keeping” were sex workers who worked independently and indoors. Part of implement the Nordic Model in the Republic of Ireland has been doubling the punishment handed down for brothel keeping.

[88] See ARCC, “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights”; CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa”; and NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations.” As several sex workers have stated, considerable discretion is left in the hands of the police officers on scene, in terms of who can be charge with what under what circumstances, and this generally does not result in a favourable outcome for sex workers and so produces an “antagonistic and alienated” relationship between sex workers and cops (see Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “”Well, It Should Be Changed for One, Because It’s Our Bodies””).

[89] See NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations.”

[90] See CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa”; and NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations.”

[91] See ARCC, “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights”; and SCOT-PEP, “The Swedish Model: A Briefing: available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019); and the sources cited under point #9 by Alison Phipps, “Why the ‘Nordic Model’ sucks (with references)” (Feb 21, 2016); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[92] See HIM, “Sex Worker Law Reform.”

[93] See NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations”; CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada”; and HIM, “Sex Worker Law Reform.”

[94] By stating this, I do not mean to suggest that the discourse of health is apolitical or dis-invested from particular power dynamics, capital flows, and ideologies pertaining to meaning and values. I just want to point out that initial questions, and point of entrance into the conversation, is different than the points of entrance taken by parties who came out of the so-called “feminist sex wars” of the 1970s and 1980s.

[95] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada”; NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations”; and Allman, “M is for Mutual A is for Acts.”

[96] See CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa.”

[97] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada”; ARCC, “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights”; CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa”; NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations”; and Phipps, “Why the ‘Nordic Model’ sucks (with references).”

[98] See the sources cited under point #10 by Phipps, “Why the ‘Nordic Model’ sucks (with references).”

[99] See ARCC, “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights.” The mention of access to labour laws and worker-based rights is significant given that some abolitionists use the absence of those rights as evidence of the violent nature of all sex work—even as they reject a solution that would make access to those things available to sex workers.

[100] See the sources cited under point #15 by Phipps, “Why the ‘Nordic Model’ sucks (with references).”

[101] Grant, “The War on Sex Workers.”

[102] See Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “Prostitution Stigma and Its Effects on the Working Conditions, Personal Lives, and Health of Sex Workers.”

[103] See Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “Prostitution Stigma and Its Effects on the Working Conditions, Personal Lives, and Health of Sex Workers.” It should be noted that terms like “slut” and “whore” are often reclaimed by sex workers and used in an affectionate manner when sex workers talk amongst sex workers (much like the “b” word has been reclaimed by feminists, the “n” word has been reclaimed by black folx, and a certain “s” word has been reclaimed by some Indigenous people), but this does not take away from the harm that is caused by that language when it is used by the wrong people or with harmful intentions. That said, it is also worth recalling at this point that the violence produced by stigma is identified by male sex workers as the primary form of violence they experience.

[104] See CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa”; Cecilia Benoit, Bill McCarthy and Mikael Jannson, “Stigma, sex work, and substance use: a comparative analysis” in Sociology of Health and Illness 37.3 (Mar 2015); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019); and Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “Prostitution Stigma and Its Effects on the Working Conditions, Personal Lives, and Health of Sex Workers.”

[105] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada.”

[106] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada”; and Allman, “M is for Mutual A is for Acts.”

[107] See Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “Prostitution Stigma and Its Effects on the Working Conditions, Personal Lives, and Health of Sex Workers.” And is not, contrary to the claims made by abolitionists mentioned above, a sign of traumatic dissociation.

[108] As per a personal correspondence with the PACE Society that took place in January, 2018; see also Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “”Well, It Should Be Changed for One, Because It’s Our Bodies.”” This is not to say that some sex workers have not expressed concerns about decriminalization (for example, some sex workers are concerned that decriminalization could lower market rates by bringing more workers into the field—a concern shown to be unfounded by the experiences in Aotearoa discussed below—and they have also expressed concerns that overly expensive business licenses could make legally operating too expensive (also Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “”Well, It Should Be Changed for One, Because It’s Our Bodies””). Again, as with any collective or collective of collectives (and independent individuals), this helps to remind us of the plurality of perspectives that exist here, just as we also noted differences within the abolitionist camp above.

[109] ARCC, “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights.”

[110] See HIM, “Sex Worker Law Reform.” See also several of the organization cited in this paper.

[111] See CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa”; NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations.”

[112] See Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “”Well, It Should Be Changed for One, Because It’s Our Bodies.””

[113] See NSWP, “The Smart Sex Worker’s Guide to Addressing the Failure of Anti-Sex Work Organizations.”

[114] See HIM, “Sex Worker Law Reform.” This also fits with research that shows how decriminalization effectively reduces the risk of sex workers contracting STIs (see Allman, “M is for Mutual A is for Acts”).

[115] See Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “”Well, It Should Be Changed for One, Because It’s Our Bodies.””

[116] CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa.”

[117] See Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “Prostitution Stigma and Its Effects on the Working Conditions, Personal Lives, and Health of Sex Workers”; and CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada.”

[118] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada.” Some of these safeguards include restrictions on managing sex workers rather than restrictions of selling or buying. Therefore, the PRA falls short of fully decriminalizing sex work and this does produce some problematical outcomes, particularly for immigrant sex workers. See Nada Zenith DeCat, “The Racism of Decriminalization,” Tits and Sass (March 2019); available online: (accessed Apr 4, 2019).

[119] See ARCC, “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights”; also CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada.”

[120] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada”; CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa”; and Benoit, Jannson, Smith, and Flagg, “Prostitution Stigma and Its Effects on the Working Conditions, Personal Lives, and Health of Sex Workers.”

[121] See CGE, “Position Paper on Sex Work in South Africa.”

[122] See ARCC, “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights.”

[123] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada.”

[124] See ARCC, “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights.”

[125] Grant, “The War on Sex Workers.”

[126] Kaye, Responding to Human Trafficking.

[127] Kaye, Responding to Human Trafficking.

[128] See CPHA, “Sex Work in Canada”; ARCC, “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights”; NYSHN, “Indigenous People in the Sex Trade”; and Kaye, Responding to Human Trafficking, for some of the conversation around this.

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