Our letter to the BC Federation of Labour
Please use any part of this letter for your own use.
February 11, 2021
Dear Member of the Women & Gender Rights Standing Committee, BC Federation of Labour
Feminist organizations in BC are concerned to learn that the BC Federation of Labour has adopted a resolution calling for the recognition of prostitution as work, for the decriminalization of prostitution, and for protections for this work under the law. This resolution is contrary to the 2014 law called for by feminist organizations across Canada. Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, decriminalizes the sale of sex in most instances. It is the first law in Canada to govern prostitution in a manner consistent with Equality Rights, particularly those of women, as guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As noted in the Preamble to the law it is “important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution, which has disproportionate impact on women and children”(1) and “it is important to denounce and prohibit the purchase of sexual services because it creates a demand for prostitution”. Versions of this law, often referred as the Nordic Model, have been called for by feminists around the world and have been adopted by progressive pro-women’s equality and pro-labour governments in Sweden, Norway, France, and Ireland.
It is notable to us that these facts are absent in your Policy on Sex Work. As a result, we wonder whose criminalization you truly intend to repeal. While feminists are glad that women are no longer being criminalized for men’s pimping and purchasing of sexual access to women, we do not agree that these men should be equally decriminalized through repeal of our current law. Such a move would amount to de facto legalization of prostitution in Canada, a situation that in other countries has led to the proliferation of the prostitution industry, of the number of women who are prostituted, and of violence against women in prostitution. Many progressives are quick to claim that “sex work is work”. However, feminists, particularly those who have exited prostitution and who have worked on the frontlines in women’s anti-violence and legal advocacy organizations, know that prostitution is not a job.
Most of the people in prostitution worldwide (approximately 40 million according to SPACE International) are women and girls. Women enter prostitution at young ages with approximately 50% entering prostitution before the age of majority in their countries, including in Canada. Most women who enter prostitution do so under conditions of poverty, incest, other forms of sexual assault, and racism. Women of colour and Indigenous women are vastly over-represented in prostitution. One third of the victims of serial killer Robert Pickton were Indigenous women. Vancouver Rape Relief found that among their callers in prostitution Indigenous women made up 27% and Black women made 14%. This is 9 times and 12 times more than their representation in the female population of Greater Vancouver respectively.(2) Once in prostitution, it is extremely difficult to leave, given few exiting services or financial supports available. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter report that the most common requests from the women in prostitution who call them are for safe shelter and exiting support.(3) Canada’s depleted social safety net and increasingly precarious employment options, contexts that are now compounded by the global COVID-19 pandemic, are only making this problem worse for women, particularly for working class, poor, racialized, and Indigenous women.
Women want to leave prostitution because it is an industry in which sexual harassment and assault are what pimps sell and johns purchase. A 2003 9-country study of violence in prostitution found that violence is the norm in prostitution globally, including in countries where it has been legalized.(4) A 2013 UN Study found that men who buy sex are also likely to commit rape. The study found that the correlation between prostitution and other forms of violence against women is that both entail men enacting their dominance over women.(5) Women do not make a living wage or experience the benefits of skill development and seniority in prostitution. Women in regimes where prostitution has been legalized, including in brothels, experience degraded work conditions and diminished autonomy over their own bodies as pimps and brothel owners compete for the business of johns, who seek to pay lower rates for more invasive and violent acts. Neither has indoor prostitution led to greater safety for women, as was noted by The Women’s Equality and Liberty Coalition in their intervention in the appeal of the acquittal of Bradley Barton for the murder of Cindy Gladue at the Supreme Court of Canada.(6) Finally, as women in prostitution age, become ill, or suffer addiction, they are pushed to the margins where they are subjected to yet more violence, more degraded conditions, and even deeper poverty.
Unionization cannot fix these problems, because they are inherent in prostitution itself: when men buy and sell sexual access to women, they do so to enact their power over women. Our current law recognizes and responds to this inequality in the prostitution transaction. The more we tolerate such inequality, such as by promoting prostitution legalization, the more likely we are to see it manifest in our society. This has already been made apparent through news stories of Pornhub and its Canadian parent company, MindGeek. These companies post non-consensual and violent imagery of women for purchase. In these situations, women have little to no recourse to stop such exploitation. Legalizing prostitution will only deepen this problem.
We therefore find it inappropriate that prostitution be defended as work by a union organization whose purpose is to defend the rights of workers. Protective and positive labour conditions, especially for women, include freedom from sexual harassment and assault, strong health and safety protections, above poverty wages, recognition of seniority and skill, possibility for advancement, and freedom to refuse dangerous, unequal, and unfair work. Prostitution does not and cannot meet any of these conditions.
We would like to meet with you to discuss a truly progressive position on prostitution among labour unions. The law that we have in Canada currently is protective of the wellbeing of women in prostitution because it prevents prostituted women (and men and trans-identified people) from being arrested and charged for crimes committed against them. The primary problem with this law is that it not enforced. Labour unions have an important role in bringing forward internal and public discussions on the failures of enforcement, of labour conditions generally, and of our social safety net. These failures embolden men and entrap women contrary to the wellbeing and equality of all women in Canada. Unions should never stand up for the idea that sexual harassment and sexual assault are normal work conditions for women. To do so is to abrogate your role in securing worker’s rights and, especially, in protecting the rights of women.
For further information and discussion on this topic, we hope you will contact us to arrange a meeting between now and March 15, 2021. Additional information can be found through the following resources:
The Sex Trade – NFB film by Eve Lamont (2015)
Regardless of whether we hear from you, we intend to pursue this matter, using public channels if necessary.
Aboriginal Women’s Action Network
Asian Women for Equality
EVE (Formerly Exploited Voices now Educating)
Vancouver Lesbian Collective
Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter
Women’s Space Vancouver
Fulu, E., Warner, X., Miedema, S., Jewkes, R., Roselli, T. and Lang, J. (2013). Why Do SomeMen Use Violence Against Women and How Can We Prevent It? Quantitative Findings from the United Nations Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific. Bangkok: UNDP, UNFPA, Un Women and UNV.