Hookers on Davie: an old documentary within a new context

Hookers on Davie, a documentary from the 80s,  was screened on June 24th at the Fox Theatre, a venue which caters to mostly white, liberal twentysomethings. The demographic who regularly attend events (music shows, burlesque, etc.) at said venue, were also the demographic who attended the screening. I did not see any local activists, feminists or other people I recognized from communities, other than a few familiar faces from the UBC feminist community. I question if the individuals present were there by default, as the pro-sex work movement seems to be supported blindly because it’s the “left” thing to do. The documentary and panelists gave some historical context for the film although the history presented did not reflect the reality of all women working in the sex industry, as the subjects of the film were predominantly white. It was clear to me that many of the viewers had no historical or contextual understanding of prostitution laws in Canada, or the recently tabled prostitution legislation: Bill C-36.

The aim of the documentary was to present the sex industry as a vibrant community and a self-supporting, pimp-free environment, while demonstrating the humanity of the subjects. The documentary did not focus on male violence, nor did the panel. Yet each subject describes accounts of male violence, wherein the life of the subject was endangered. There was mention of incest, rape, battery and intimidation with a weapon, yet none of the panelists invited dialogue regarding violence against women, nor did the viewers during the question and answer period. The documentary attempts to frame the purchasing of bodies for sexual use, as simply “work” — a transactional, normative, and otherwise “safe” form of labour. By framing prostitution as labour, the pro-sex work movement is now understood to be a labour rights movement, rather than a liberationist movement. The pro-sex work ideology suggests that women can be empowered within a patriarchal capitalist white supremacy, as long as we are protected by a state which creates the conditions for women and girls to be subjected to male violence.

The documentary aims to construct an image of a john as a “nice guy” or a “normal” guy in order to give the impression that “normal men” do not perpetuate violence against women — that doctors, lawyers, and business owners are not the perpetrators of violence. This is a myth often perpetuated by the pro-sex work movement — that “not all men” perpetuate violence, not all men are privileged by patriarchy.

But the construction of the “nice john” is contradicted by the stories of male violence told by each of the subjects in the film. One of the panelists later revealed that Candice (one of the documentary subjects) was murdered by a client, a regular john of hers. The “nice john” construct is also unpacked as women subjects share stories about the performances which they enacted for johns, such as daddy-daughter role play. Male buyers and male sex trade supporters view women as objects under patriarchy; their material and psychological harm rendered irrelevant.

Most women in the documentary described discontent with their work as prostitutes and admitted to entering prostitution to escape the conditions of capitalism and earn wages. Many of the women’s experiences with prostitution began as children/teens (12-14 years old). And still there was no discussion of male violence… By ignoring the issue of male violence, the material reality of women in prostitution who face violence at the hands of men is trivialized and the perpetrators are not held accountable. While I attempted to digest the metanarrative of the documentary, some man beside me (older, white) showed his empathy for the female subjects by pitying their experiences, wondering how this could happen to women. The answer is that violence against women is assiduous — it is cultural, institutional, social. It is romanticized, sexualized and accepted. Because there are dialogues about prostitution that do not address male violence.

The documentary attempts to destigmatize prostitution and the women who are the majority of prostitutes. The audience was charmed by Michelle (woman subject) and the fierce personality and humour she possessed. Prostitutes are real people with personalities and feelings. This is not a radical notion. Pro-sex work lobbyists are not the only organizations fighting for the rights of women’s personhood. Yet, the work and activism of feminists are demonized by the pro-sex work lobby — abolitionist groups, for example, are unjustly compared to the conservative right (not-in-my-backyard types). The comparison is justified on grounds of language similarities, as abolitionists frame prostitution as an inherently sexist, violent act — a form of exploitation. This argument is not rooted in conservative moralism, though. The abolitionist stance refuses to demonize the prostituted woman, but rather assigns blame to the perpetrators of violence, the state, and the dominant sex. Unlike NIMBYs, both historically and contemporarily (such as the 1984 injunction), feminists who oppose the sex industry address the hierarchies which exist within prostitution and that create a context within which the sex trade can exist(race, sex, and class) and the systems of oppression which are exercised. Feminists are not attempting to erase prostituted women and their experiences, but rather criticize the conditions which allow exploitation to manifest.

The panelists placed a high emphasis on “choice.” As Velvet Steele said, a job is a job and “we all choose our professions.” This seems a rather glib statement, as the praxis of our choices is influenced by a variety of contexts, such as gender, class, and race. The panel refused to acknowledge the hierarchies of race, sex and class which exist within prostitution, and that, often, women do not have the social or economic capital to exit the industry.

The argument of “choice” is emblematic of the neoliberal political and philosophical ideology of the status quo. This ideology places emphasis on the individual and individual agency, and ignores a class analysis. Moreover, women as a class are divided by hierarchies such as race and class, yet the liberal model is still applied. Not all women choose. The individualist approach was reflective of the climate of privilege of the event, similar to the Bedford decision which protected the rights of a particular class of sex workers, not Aboriginal women and street level prostitutes. The documentary (and the panel) provided a poor representation of the reality of sex workers in Vancouver, whether or historical or not — Aboriginal women were not represented in the film, despite the fact that Aboriginal women are overrepresented in street prostitution.

What most concerned me was the reality that the demographic which attended the event were mostly liberal/progressive types who support pro-sex work rhetoric by default and do not think critically about why prostitution is harmful. The panel condemned abolitionists, the Nordic Model and second wave feminists. Becky Ross (a UBC gender studies professor), for example, said  that second wave feminists did not understand prostitution as a labour issue. I was very disturbed by the UBC academics framing of second wave feminists as conservative and ahistorical. The second wave challenged patriarchy and capitalism; the institutions which divided women and men’s labour. Prostitution is gendered — even if viewed solely as a form of labour — and despite the “men involved in prostitution,” women make up the vast majority of prostitutes. As we know, men are the buyers of sex, whether it be the bodies of women and girls or other men.

The demographic in attendance absorbed the information without question or hesitation.

Misinformation concerning the abolitionist approach and second wave feminism is rampant; I have experienced it within my university community, for example, when a male “activist” argued that abolitionists want to criminalize women. This is one example but there are countless instances. I have experienced the disregard for second wave feminists, the myths about our foremothers and their attempts to dismantle patriarchy. This is the demographic who will be infiltrating academia and cultural avenues, the liberal twentysomethings who simultaneously got wasted while discussing the contingent issue of Canadian prostitution laws in Canada.

The question and answer period was dominated by (white) male voices — men who explicitly supported sex work reform. I wanted to vocalize my concern regarding the lack of women of colour and Aboriginal women within the film and the discussion, but I did not. I did however discuss this issue with one of the panelists following the Q&A but she did not have any substantial reason for the invisibility of Aboriginal women within the film and the panel. Basically she said that Aboriginal women and women of colour need to represent themselves and tell their stories. I agree, but also their absence from the film and the panel presents a misleading vision of prostitution in Canada, historically and contemporarily.

As I walked home I attempted to digest the event, which was followed by a dance party. I was infuriated by the selective representation of prostitution in Vancouver, which constructed an image of prostitution which does not reflect the material realities of women. The whole event was about framing the pro-sex work agenda as progressive, while framing the abolitionist position as counter-progressive, prudent, conservative and moralist.

Are we going to challenge the capitalist patriarchy which allows for women and girls to be exploited and subjected to violence? Or will we blatantly accept the idea that men exercising their economic and social capital is simply a transaction between consenting adults? The framing of the sex industry as an opportunity for women to exercise their agency is a transparent attempt to liberalize the issue and normalize systems power. Granting women equal access to a patriarchal society, a structure which exists only to benefit the dominant sex, will not liberate women as a class, especially those women who are most affected by systems of oppression, whether they are performing sexual labour or not.


Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 12.13.09 PMEmily Monaghan is a second year student at UBC, a member of the Guerilla Feminist Collective and an organizer for TBTN UBC. Predominantly disgusted by the pop culture feminist climate of the status quo.






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  • huha

    Excellent article. It is always encouraging to see great writers articulate and defend important feminist positions. Thank you.

    It is ironic how many “progressives” also like to call themselves “skeptics.” They just fall for everything the pro-prostitution lobby says without giving it much thought because pussy on demand! We know that johns or men interested in becoming johns don’t care about the well-being of women in prostitution even when provided with evidence that it’s harmful. Some may disagree, but the term “dickheads” is a correct and appropriate description of those men.

    As for women, a typical female libfem response to critics of prostitution is: “Oh, but the majority choose to be there, you’re just talking about the minority. You’re a liar. Trafficking isn’t really common and it’s a completely different thing. You are a danger to sex workers, SWERF.” By the way, when provided with proof and citations many reject them because bias (and because a pimp who calls herself a ‘sex worker’ on twitter or tumblr is more trustworthy).

    I’ve come to the conclusion that liberal feminists live in Mememe Happyland. Everything is cool, nobody is hurt, lalala choice choice choice lalalala but that person on twitter said so lalalalala I trust twitter and pimps lalalala survivors are lying lalalala shut up prudes lalalala me me me me lalalala choice choice choice lalalala.

    Pimps and traffickers are cheering right now. They don’t have to put their money into brainwashing people through the media anymore. Prostitution and trafficking are growing at alarming rates and here we have people who call themselves feminists support the slave industry. When are people going to wake up to this nightmare? How many women and children are going to have to suffer before libfems and co. come back to planet Earth?

  • lizor

    What a great piece. It must have been disgusting to have to sit through that panel and those men spouting the rhetoric that does nothing but protect their access to blow-jobs on demand. I’m glad you went, Emily, and that you shared this report of what’s going down. I look forward to more of your writing!

    • em em em

      It was quite disturbing, it took me a while to digest. The disgust later manifested into passion which was helpful into writing this piece. I hope to contribute more to this wonderful radical blog.

      • Meghan Murphy

        I hope so too!

  • Lee Lakeman

    Very helpful and articulate analysis of the situation. And helpful to hear about this event in order to anticipate the harm. I am grateful for the critical judgements of the role of the university teacher.

  • Missfit

    It is an established fact that a significant proportion of women in prostitution experience violence, were victims of sexual abuse, entered the industry as minors, one woman in the video was murdered by a john, and what they come back with is ‘choice’ and ‘agency’?

    I’ve noticed already that pro-prostitution discussions tend to be dominated by men, all in the name of feminism and women’s choices, of course. That always bothered me.

  • secretfem

    great article!

  • Great piece Em. Thank you!

  • Thanks so much for situating this event within the greater context of mostly white, male, neoliberal capitalism, now being marketed as the queer liberal left. It’s hard to believe how easily people will accept this without question. Most that do decide to investigate further using their own time, energies, and brains usually arrive at the logical conclusion (as you have) that prostitution is born out of inequality, and ought not be tolerated in any society that aims for equality for all. So refreshing to see such great writing and analysis coming out from UBC. Looking forward to more of your excellent work!

  • Grackle

    It was followed by a dance party?? Jesus, that right there says a lot, doesn’t it?

  • Thank you for writing this article Emily. I am flipping outraged at how you were dismissed when you brought up the need to include aboriginal women’s experiences as well as the experiences of other women of color in discussions of prostitution. The fact is it isn’t just that they need to speak for themselves (no shit) they need a platform with which to do it. The fact they weren’t included in the documentary is incredibly racist and should at least be acknowledged as such. Then they went on to have a dance party? What fun it is being beaten and raped for a living! What a farce.

  • I’ve always been unclear about the whole sex work issue, choosing to stay on the fence on it. Your article definitely made me shift in my position.

  • The lack of focus on First Nations in this issue really bugs me. Glad to see mention of it in the article.


    • Megan, thanks so much for this documentary. Over at rabble, the comments on this piece include those by a person who claims to be a First Nations woman and former sex worker, and is, of course trying to shut down comments about the viewpoint most Native women and their organisations have about the trade…

      I have had the privilege and the pain of facilitating at an event that did not directly address Indigenous women in the sex trade, but it certainly came up as one of the forms of harm, violence and alienation inflicted on First Peoples, as did the residential schools and the sexual and other abuse of both girls and boys.

      I’m sorry to be a bit vague, but I have a duty of confidentiality towards clients. This stuff is so terribly painful. I’m glad that the women in this video have the courage to go on living and not feel consumed by that pain.

  • Pillex

    This is an old documentary. Very simple and straightforward, and certainly for the time it was educational and eye opening. The subjects in the movie were more often than not, transexuals. That was more where the focus was placed. At the time made, that would have been eye opening. Now over thirty years on, there is broader understanding and need for even more understanding, but you can’t go back in time and change this 1984 production. And quite likely the patch of earth upon where this film was made did not include aboriginal women, it mainly including transitioning males.