At least on the surface, the problem seems to boil down to a fundamental divide between those who see all sex work as exploitation and victimization, and those who support Canada's adult sex workers in making a free choice to work in the industry and in safe circumstance. Many women's groups have tended to align themselves with the exploitation side of the debate, which has left sex-worker-led organizations largely on their own to fight for safer working conditions, equality and basic human rights.
Given what a hot-button topic this is among women's groups, it's a powerful thing that the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre has done in stepping up to the plate this week to announce its solidarity with Canadian sex workers. The organization voted unanimously to support decriminalization and join the fight to stop Bill C36, the proposed law the federal Conservatives want to bring in to criminalize even more of the sex industry.
With other women's centres such as Vancouver Rape Relief taking the opposite position on C36, it took real bravery for VSAC to stand up against the more popular view of sex work as victimization (a view that rarely includes the opinions of real-life adult sex workers who say they choose to work in the industry). VSAC is even standing in opposition to the position taken by the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, which is against decriminalization and views all sex work as violence. That takes guts.
Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay and the Harper government are so certain they are right on this one - that the answer to problems in the sex industry is to crack down harder on it with more laws. They're wrong. And what's really disturbing is that so many otherwise terrific women's organizations, whose strong feminist roots ought to have taught them all to be mindful of silencing and patronizing other women, are also wrong.
Yes, some people really are suffering and being victimized in the sex industry, and we need to do a lot more to help them. Human trafficking for any reason must not be tolerated, and children should never be exploited, coerced, abused or forced into any kind of work.
But that doesn't have to come at a cost to the adults who choose to work in the sex industry, a group that I suspect probably numbers in the tens of thousands in Canada alone. Why are rights-based organizations that do such good work on so many other fronts unable to acknowledge that there is a significant population of sex workers who completely reject being portrayed as helpless victims? Why do sex workers have to suffer just so others can feel safe and smug in their pretension that it's possible to eliminate the sex industry if we just lay enough criminal charges?
But along comes the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre to remind us that all it takes is one brave soul to break from the pack. Who knows what waves VSAC's decision might set in motion? Those who feel passionately about improving sex workers' rights are already convinced on this issue, but there remains a very large world of unconvinced who might be ready to consider the rights of sex workers if more support started coming from "mainstream" fronts.
Years ago when I visited some of the legal brothels of New Zealand, I learned that the Federation of Businesswomen of New Zealand was among the organizations that actively supported decriminalization efforts. I felt a flash of pure envy for a country where even the regular folk were ready to stand in solidarity with sex workers. Surely that day will come in Canada? Surely.
PEERS Victoria has worked hard for many years to explain the realities of the sex industry to a doubting community. I've been connected to PEERS in various ways for 15 years now, and admit that at times I wondered if any of those messages were being heard. VSAC's support is profoundly heartening confirmation that while the pace of change sometimes feels glacial, somebody is listening.