Victoria Sexual Assault Centre takes official position in favour of full decriminalization of prostitution

The Victoria Sexual Assault Centre (VSAC) recently published a statement outlining their official position on prostitution, saying:

“VSAC unanimously agreed to support the decriminalization of sex work. We therefore oppose Bill C-36, as it further criminalizes the sex work industry.”

This position is defended on the basis that, according to the statement, “criminalization of any aspect of the adult sex industry will have a negative impact on the safety of sex workers.”

There is nothing attached to this claim to support it, so I’m not sure how, exactly, the organization came to such a conclusion. It seems to me, rather, that the legalization of the industry has been extremely harmful to women and girls, in general, and we have yet to see any real evidence that criminalizing johns has had “a negative impact on the safety of sex workers.”

The premise of their decision appears to be based on a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of options, framing the choice as being between either full decriminalization or full criminalization (i.e. criminalizing the prostitutes themselves), which is not accurate.

“Criminalizing sex work creates mistrust with the police, the criminal justice system, and other organizations. This distrust will discourage sex workers from reporting sexualized violence (whether the violence occurs within or outside client interactions), and/or seeking help from organizations such as VSAC. Further, due to fear of legal repercussions, criminalization of the sex industry is a strong contributing factor in the isolation of sex workers to desolate areas of the city, away from others who can provide safety.”

I agree that this would certainly be the case if we were talking about criminalizing prostitutes, but we are not. Bill C-36 intends to criminalize exploiters (pimps and johns). It does not make logical sense that, were selling sex legal (as it would be if Bill C-36 passes and as it is under the Nordic model), prostitutes would avoid reporting sexualized violence — there would be no “legal repercussions” at all. Rather, it makes logical sense that, were johns to be criminalized and prostitutes decriminalized, women and girls would be far more likely to report sexualized violence and/or seek out support from rape crisis centers. Under circumstances where rape or abuse takes place, the perpetrator/john is already doing something illegal — buying sex — therefore charging him were he to rape or abuse a prostitute would be fairly easy. The prostitute, on the other hand, would be doing nothing wrong. On the other hand, in a situation where exploiting women is already perfectly acceptable, normal and legal, it doesn’t seem as though it would be all that easy to charge a john, were he to rape her. He is already in a position of power and has paid for access to her body.

The statement also argues that Bill C-36 would make it more difficult to screen clients, leading to more violence, a notion that has already been debunked a number of times by women who have worked in the trade, like Trisha Baptie and Rachel Moran, who point out that there is no way to tell the “good” johns from the bad, regardless of screening. Women know full well that, very often, it is the men they trust and believe are “good” who turn out to be their rapists and abusers. An obvious way to deter violent johns is to keep them away from the women and girls they intend to victimize in the first place — not place the onus on vulnerable women and girls to somehow predict or avoid their own victimization.

VSAC expresses specific concerns around provision 286.2, which addresses “material benefits from sexual services” (and replaces the old “living off the avails” provision), saying:

“Provision 286.2 criminalizes those who are acting as ‘spotters,’ drivers, and commercial business operators (etc.) who are providing invaluable security for sex workers ranging from street-based to indoor sex work, including erotic dancing in private residences. Without 3rd party security measures, sex workers will be further isolated from possible interveners if sexualized violence occurs. In addition, it is vitally important in the event of sexualized violence to have a support network. If an intimate partner or friend lives off the avails of sex work, they face potential long-term imprisonment.”

This seems to regurgitate an oft-repeated (and unfounded) claim that, to criminalize those who benefit financially or live off the avails of prostitution will somehow result in taxi drivers, family members, intimate partners, and roommates of prostitutes being thrown in jail. Is there evidence that this happens regularly? Wherein innocent family members and friends are charged because their mother or sister or roommate is selling sex? Certainly I haven’t seen it… The purpose of this section (and the bill, more generally) is to target people who are exploiting women — pimps, in other words. It does not apply to those in “legitimate living arrangements” or with “legal or moral obligations” to prostitutes. The purpose of the provision is not to jail drivers and bodyguards. The purpose is to target exploitative or abusive relationships. Why the police would bother going after drivers, innocent friends, partners, or family members, I don’t know. In any case, I’m not sure what the alternative is, except to legalize pimping (i.e. those who are benefiting materially/financially from the prostitution of another), which seems to me to be exploitative by nature and, therefore, not something we would or should be interested in protecting, as feminists…

VSAC also opposes provision 213 (1.1) but omits or is unaware of the fact that it was amended and no longer reads:

“Everyone is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction who communicates with any person — for the purpose of offering or providing sexual services for consideration — in a public place, or in any place open to public view, that is or is next to a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present”

Section 213 (1.1) now reads:

“Everyone is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction who communicates with any person — for the purpose of offering or providing sexual services for consideration — in a public place, or in any place open to public view, that is or is next to a school ground, playground or day care centre.”

From my perspective, this provision is still partially unnecessary in that it criminalizes both the buyer and the seller when it really only needs to criminalize the buyer, but it is worth noting that the language now is much less broad. (I mean, anyone under 18 could be pretty much anywhere…)

Concerns around “stigma” and discrimination are described in the statement as such:

“Criminalization of any aspect of the sex industry will increase stigma and discrimination associated with sex workers.”

What this statement doesn’t convey or understand is that discrimination is what leads women and girls into prostitution in the first place… Legalizing the industry doesn’t change that — rather it further normalizes, legitimizes, and entrenches that discrimination as natural (women exist to provide sexual pleasure) or even valuable, like a viable employment opportunity (women can freely make a living as prostitutes! Huzzah!) and doesn’t challenge the fact that racism is fetishized in the sex industry and acts as a foundation for the existence of prostitution in the first place.

Under legalization stigma has not disappeared, as this statement assumes, but remains strong as ever, and is the reason that a marginal number of women register as legal prostitutes — because they hope to leave the industry and don’t want it known that they worked as prostitutes. The stigma exists because the situation is a degrading one — the mere fact that a man would buy sex from a woman shows he doesn’t respect women as a class nor does he see the woman he pays for as a whole, complete, complex human being who has her own feelings and desires outside his pleasure. Women and girls in prostitution are treated like shit regardless of whether or not it is legal to buy them. The idea of prostitution doesn’t respect the humanity of women. Men don’t respect the humanity of women in prostitution. This is why there is “stigma.” Also, again, because the majority women and girls don’t want to sell sex and feel degraded and/or traumatized by the experience.

The claim that “stigma and discrimination not only lead to further violence, they are forms of violence” completely ignores, again, that the violence is happening in the first place because of discrimination/inequality and that men specifically target the most vulnerable: poor women, Indigenous women, women with substance abuse and mental health issues, victims of trauma, etc. What of that discrimination? Will it somehow disappear if we legalize the purchase of sex? Stigma doesn’t not perpetrate violence. Men perpetrate violence. Name the problem, target the source of the abuse.

Finally, the statement claims that:

“VSAC supports the arguments outlined by PEERS that the proposed laws construct sex workers as simultaneously victims and criminals; homogenize the sex industry; conflate prostitution and trafficking; and infantilize sex workers who attempt to define themselves as people who have not been victimized. Bill C-36 alienates sex workers and fosters the perception that they deserve violence, or that violence against them is different than violence against non-sex workers.”

No, actually, criminalizing the purchase of women and girls fosters the perception that they don’t deserve violence — that they deserve better than to be fucked by strangers all day and that men who do perpetrate violence against marginalized women and girls deserve to be criminalized. Trafficking and prostitution are intricately connected, as evidenced by the fact that trafficking is prostitution and that trafficking decreases in places where buying sex is criminalized and increases where it is legal. Bill C-36 explicitly does not construct sex workers as criminals and names the men as criminals instead. If the bill does present the violence that happens against women and girls in prostitution as somehow “different than violence against non-sex workers” (I’m not sure, honestly, what they mean by this statement) it is, perhaps, that it positions those in prostitution as particularly vulnerable to violence and exploitation… Which they are…

At the end of the day, more violence against and exploitation of women and girls happens under legalization. So I am a little baffled and disappointed to see VSAC taking a position that strikes me as both misguided and misrepresentative, undermines the feminist goal of gender equality, and fails to address the extreme and deeply rooted racism that supports the industry.

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.