Who does decriminalization leave out?

This article was originally written for and published in Sister Outsiders, issue #4: What you won’t hear inside the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.


Decriminalization is touted, by many, as the most progressive way to address prostitution. From our local left-wing politicians to feminist academics to the media, this option is often presented as though it is the only one. Arguments in favour of decriminalizing prostitution tell us that this model will help women, that it will provide agency and options, and that it will empower women and improve lives.

These arguments don’t tell the whole story.

Decriminalization, is, in fact, a misleading label. Placed in opposition to abolitionists – who advocate for the decriminalization of prostituted women, while criminalizing only the pimps and johns – those who advocate for decriminalization are essentially arguing for legalization. Decriminalization is commonly used as a way to describe efforts to decriminalize pimps and johns and is commonly presented as the only model that supports the decriminalization of prostituted women. This is not nearly the case.

Decriminalizing the women has always been the starting point for abolitionists and radical feminists. Women have always been the foundation for radical feminist action. Abolitionists have been the only ones to turn the lens onto male demand in terms of addressing prostitution and violence against women while maintaining unwavering support for women who have, because of various injustices, had to turn to prostitution. The legitimatization and normalization of the idea that men should have the legal right to access women’s bodies 24/7 is what decriminalization advocates are fighting for. If not for that, they would surely be aligned with the abolitionist movement.

As a result of the Missing Women Inquiry it has becoming glaringly obvious that women went missing because they were living at the margins. That these were women who were made invisible by an inequitable society. Poverty and racism ensured that these women could disappear and that the state wouldn’t bat an eye. We allowed this to happen, as a society. It isn‟t only the RCMP who is to blame, though they must be held accountable.

By refusing to support social programs and social safety nets which support women, we allow women to remain at the margins and we force them into desperate situations. Decriminalization won’t change that.

Decriminalization will help women in positions of privilege, women who have a certain level of “choice”, and women who hold power in our society. It will help the johns who want to buy sex freely and without shame. It will help the pimps who want to consider themselves to be “legitimate businessmen”.

But who won’t it help? Who is missing from the rhetoric of decriminalization? Who, once again, is placed at the margins of this debate?

Many argue that women in prostitution choose to be there. And perhaps some do. Perhaps, within the limited options we have, as women living in a capitalist patriarchy, some women choose prostitution. And so what? Are we willing to sacrifice all women in order to please a few?

Under the decriminalization model, those women who are engaged in survival sex work are left to fend for themselves. These aren‟t the women who will be in your supposedly “safe” brothels and these women are not the high-class escorts beloved by Hollywood movies. These women are not the women you talk about when you talk about women making an “empowered choice” to do sex work.

Women have long been treated as commodities, but between colonialism and capitalism, it is Indigenous women who have suffered the most under this model. Over ten years ago, Jackie Lynne wrote: “The sexual domination of First Nations women has remained unabated to present-day due to patriarchy’s stronghold,” and it would seem that nothing has changed. Within the discourse of empowerment and of “choosing” sex work, we leave out the context of both an intensely racist and sexist society as well as the context of poverty. The “empowered    women” who speak about decriminalization as though it is the key to women‟s freedom may well be looking for liberty, but in doing so they leave behind all of their sisters.

There are other options. We don’t have to settle for harm-reduction. If we can’t demand more for women and if we can‟t demand an end to abuse then what are we fighting for?

As progressives, we must demand change with all of society in mind, but most of all we must demand change which privileges the most disempowered. Decriminalization is the dream of those who have given up.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.