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.
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My clients are POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa Work Educate and Resist) and Maggie’s: the Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. Last summer they told the Ontario Court of Appeal that not only do these laws make their work more dangerous, but that the laws take away their legal right to make important personal decisions about their bodies, their sexuality and their personal relationships.
In their legal submissions, POWER and Maggie’s compared choosing to engage in sex work with the right to choose to have an abortion. Both of these decisions can be difficult, involve complex circumstances, and are morally controversial. Just like abortion, choosing to do sex work is a fundamentally personal decision that relates directly to an individual’s sense of autonomy and bodily integrity.
In their submissions POWER and Maggie’s also argued that the laws around sex work disproportionately affect women and men from historically disadvantaged groups. The majority of sex workers are women, however, an important and often overlooked group of sex workers are men who have sex with men. Further, a relatively large proportion of sex workers are racialized, Indigenous and/or trans people. The laws criminalizing sex work single out people who already face intersecting forms of oppression and further expose them to violence by making their work illegal and unsafe. Other legal jobs that include a risk of violence--such as law enforcement, professional sports, firefighting, bus or taxi driving, to name a few--are regulated to protect workers and offer workers legal options if they’re exploited or experience violence. The fact that sex workers are denied these basic protections is discrimination, and therefore, unconstitutional.
By prohibiting sex workers from taking steps to make their jobs safer, the laws are reinforcing the stereotype that the lives of sex workers aren’t valued and aren’t worth protecting. This stigmatization, or whorephobia—a term used by POWER to describe this systemic marginalization—can prevent sex workers from accessing important health, social, or police services for fear of judgment or punishment if their occupation is discovered. This marginalization is multiplied for poor, disabled, trans, racialized and Indigenous women who already face barriers accessing these services due to institutionalized racism, transphobia, colonization, sexism, classism, homophobia and ableism. In addition, this marginalization also contributes to Indigenous women being overrepresented amongst sex workers who have been assaulted or murdered.