A quick note on accuracy & the prostitution debates

Because it’s difficult to have a genuine conversation or debate when we are presented with inaccurate information, I just wanted to write a quick post to respond to this post that went up a last week over at Gender Focus.

The post was initially written about a recent decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada to grant public interest standing to Sheryl Kiselbach and a group called Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) which, rather than having much to do (yet) with prostitution and prostitution law (aside from the fact that the group wants standing in order to challenge prostitution law in B.C.), is relevant in terms of public-interest litigation and who can launch constitutional challenges of the criminal code. The federal government had originally argued that the group did not have the right to challenge the laws because neither party was at risk of being criminally charged under the particular laws at hand.

Bedford v. Canada is a separate case which will decide which aspects of prostitution are criminalized in Ontario.

The post quickly moved from an announcement about the court decision to making vague implications about abolition and the prostitution debates among feminists.

Yes, there is a debate among feminists regarding prostitution and legislation. In Canada, at this particular moment in time feminists are divided due, in part, to the Bedford case. This issue is of primary concern to feminists because of the deeply violent, sexist, racist, and classist nature of prostitution in our society. I think it’s fair to say that most of those who are involved in these debates and identify as feminists care primarily about the safety and lives of women, regardless of whether they advocate for legalization or abolition. I think we all want to end violence against women. I hope we do, in any case.

This is why the debate becomes heated. It is about women’s lives, it is about equality, it is about safety, and it is about human rights.

It’s frustrating to read information that is manipulative which is why I feel obligated to clarify a few things. Whether or not the author of the post intended to leave out relevant information in order to manipulate readers is not for me to say. It’s possible she simply isn’t well-versed in these debates and in feminist perspectives on prostitution. It’s also possible that the lack of pertinent information was strategic.

The author states:

As feminists, it is important to acknowledge the ongoing conflict between and within “waves” and womens’ groups around sex work and to strongly advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution.

For starters, the “conflict” is not about “waves”. Yes, there is a particular thread running through third wave feminism that focuses on individual choice in a way that often negates context and ignores factors that limit and influence choice. But perspectives on prostitution are not divided generationally — meaning there is no line that divides all second and all third wave feminists when it comes to this issue (if that is, indeed, what the author is implying). I know abolitionists that range from their 20s to their 70s. I also know that women who advocate for the full decriminalization or legalization of prostitution are cross-generational.

Pretending as though this is somehow about ‘old-school’/second wave feminists vs. younger/third wave feminists is disingenuous and misleading. I grew up within the third wave and I am abolitionist.

I find it odd to note that there is indeed a “conflict” that exists but not describe what exactly that conflict is. Either acknowledge where the conflict lies or why bother mentioning it?

It’s also useful (particularly if we are trying to be honest in our representations of these debates) to note that abolitionists advocate for the decriminalization of prostituted women. That prostituted women should not be criminalized for doing what they have to do in order to survive is something that is agreed upon by almost all women’s groups and feminists. To criminalize these women is to criminalize poverty.  I find that, often, those who advocate for the decriminalization of pimps and johns tend to conveniently position themselves as advocates of simply “decriminalization”, simultaneously painting abolitionists as being in support of the criminalization of the prostituted. You could call that manipulative or you could call it a lie. Depends on your mood, I suppose.

To make a sweeping statement such as this:

We need to continue to challenge the views of organizations that support the abolition of prostitution and to reinforce the urgent need for harm reduction strategies that meet women where they are at.

without providing any explanation as to who “we” is and why “we” need to challenge the many women’s groups and individuals who don’t think that decriminalizing pimps and johns will help provide women with better lives  nor will the normalization of prostitution work to promote equality and an end to patriarchy (also known as abolitionists), seems purposeless. It leaves out pivotal information. Abolitionists want to move beyond harm-reduction. They too, want to meet women where they are at. They just don’t want to leave them there. We don’t need to abandon women in order to reduce harm.

To say that “abolition will only take action to remove these choices and agency, further criminalizing women and perpetuating the already-existing cycle of violence” is to similarly manipulate the truth, the reader, and to simplify the debate in a way that is not helpful.

Abolitionists want women to have more choices so that they don’t need to resort to prostitution. They advocate for a model adopted by Sweden, Norway, and Iceland (and is also, I believe, being considered by France) that decriminalizes prostituted women, criminalizes pimps and johns, and that looks at prostitution not as a moral issue but one of human rights and equality.

As stated in this letter: “In the vast majority of cases, prostitution cannot be viewed as a choice but rather a lack of choice due to systemic issues including – but not limited to – gender inequality, poverty and racial discrimination.”

Having real choice means that women have access to housing, jobs, healthcare, education, and other support systems. To pretend as though we must allow men to have legal access to women and girls in order for them to truly be free strikes me as either misinformed, cynical, or simply unimaginative.

We can do better than this. This issue is important and deserves fair treatment and honest representation. Have an opinion, be biased. I have no problem with that. But make your opinion an informed one and make your argument an honest one.



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.