January 20, 2012 • In web :: Features
Sex Work: A Feminist Legal Perspective
Feminist lawyer Leslie Robertson discusses her work with sex worker-led advocacy organizations.
Selling sex is controversial. And exchanging sexual services for money is a difficult issue to discuss amongst feminists: some say sex work is always violent and a form of exploitation; others consider it a viable job choice. Right now, this debate is once again front and centre in Canadian courts.
As a feminist lawyer, I take direction from my clients and I respect their experiences and their knowledge. This past year I’ve been part of a group of lawyers that represent sex worker-led advocacy organizations and when it comes to sex work I let my clients tell me about their work. I believe that they know the best ways to improve their working conditions.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, it is not illegal to exchange sex for money in Canada. It’s only certain activities related to sex work that are against the law. While it’s legal for adults to sell or buy sex, what is against the law is communicating in public about selling sex, being in a location where sexual services are sold, and living off the money that is made from sex work. These laws make it hard for many sex workers to function legally and safely.
The federal and Ontario governments claim that it’s not their responsibility to protect people who sell sex because they’re choosing a dangerous lifestyle. However, many sex workers argue that it is actually the legal restrictions around selling sex that make their work unsafe. Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch, and Valerie Scott are fighting these laws in Court. In September of 2010, the Ontario Superior Court agreed with them and ruled that the laws that criminalize sex work are unconstitutional because they violate sex workers’ rights to personal security.
The Court agreed with the sex worker applicants when it found that the laws increase the risk of violence by making it illegal to negotiate the sale of sex, to work indoors, and to work with other people like drivers, administrative staff or security guards. The criminalization of these activities means that it is hard to clearly consent to specific sex acts and to screen clients and negotiate the terms of sex in advance. The laws also push sex workers to work alone and in isolated areas. The court further ruled that the criminalization of these activities forces sex workers to choose between breaking the law and safer working conditions.