“Government in our bedrooms: The parallels between prostitution laws and abortion laws.”
A speech given on Sept 17, 2014 at the FIRST Keynote Forum, featuring Catherine Healy of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective: Sex Work in New Zealand, “Eleven Years of Decriminalisation: The Sky’s Still Blue.”
In 1967, Pierre Trudeau was the Justice Minister, and he introduced an Omnibus bill that would decriminalize homosexuality and contraception, and legalize abortion. He famously said at the time, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
Since that Omnibus bill passed in 1969, abortion was completely decriminalized in 1988, and gay marriage was legalized in 2005. Finally, Canada’s prostitution laws were struck down last December by the Supreme Court. But the government is still stubbornly refusing to leave our bedrooms. It’s last stand is an ideological battle against sex between consenting adults for money.
My passion has always been women’s rights and equality, and I’m primarily an abortion rights activist. One of the reasons I got involved in the sex work issue because I was struck by the many parallels between sex work and the abortion issue, at least in terms of feminism and women’s rights. (Of course, significant numbers of sex workers are male or transgender and some women buy sex, but I’m going to focus my comments on women sex workers because the supporters of Bill C-36 are really only concerned about women. They don’t care about men or transgender workers, it’s as if they don’t exist.)
To me, both issues – abortion and sex work – come down to trusting women and respecting their autonomy. It’s about respecting a woman’s choice to have an abortion or do sex work. It’s her body, it’s her life, and she’s the only one who knows what the best option according to her circumstances is. Whether the choice is abortion or sex work, it might be a constrained choice, a difficult one, where the woman has few other options. But it’s still a choice, and she has a right to make it, regardless if others morally disagree with it. Even if her choice turns out to be a mistake that she’ll regret, women should be trusted to take responsibility for their decisions and the consequences. Women are adults, not children who need to be protected from themselves.
I believe the premise of Bill C-36 is rooted in the same old sexist, patriarchal, traditional beliefs that we’ve been fighting for centuries. Beliefs that are shared, for the most part, by both religious social conservatives, and the radical feminist movement that opposes sex work.
These shared beliefs are that women’s sexuality needs to be controlled and “protected”, that no normal woman would really choose to do sex work, that sexual freedom for women is dangerous to themselves and others, especially promiscuity, and that women are actually victimized by sex. Not just sex work, but sex itself. There’s a radical feminist belief that penetration is an act of violence.
These are the same types of beliefs that right-wing anti-abortionists have about women and sex. I’d like to illustrate this with two arguments that I constructed, one based on the anti- choice view, and one on the anti-prostitution view held by radical feminists.
“Abortion is always violence against women. It’s physically dangerous, it victimizes them, robs them of their natural motherhood role, and inflicts lasting psychological damage. Women never truly choose abortion; they are forced into it by men, poverty, and desperation. We must protect women and give them better options by banning abortion and helping them keep their babies.
“Prostitution is always violence against women. It’s physically dangerous, it victimizes them, robs them of their natural sexuality, and inflicts lasting psychological damage. Women never truly choose prostitution; they are forced into it by men, poverty, and desperation. We must protect women and give them better options by banning prostitution and helping them out of it.”
So the common thread is that both radical feminists and anti-abortionists don’t recognize women’s agency and cast women as passive victims. Women’s choice to do sex work is even considered to be deluded or naïve—they have a “false consciousness” and don’t know they’re in thrall to the patriarchy. While anti-abortionists often assume that women who have abortions don’t actually understand what they’re doing, that they’re ignorant about what pregnancy is, and have to be told that they’re “killing a baby”.
Both groups also use dehumanizing language to describe sex workers and women who have abortions. For example, sex workers are called “prostituted women” while those who’ve had abortions are called “post-abortive women.
Both radical feminists and anti-abortionists don’t recognize the majority of women who really do choose sex work or have abortions without regret. Radical feminists only listen to the relatively small number of former sex workers who misinterpret the violence and abuse they suffered as caused by sex work itself rather than its stigma and criminalization. These women now preach about the dangers of prostitution and tell their sad stories in an effort to ban it and prevent other women from entering the industry. But how is that different from the anti-choice women of the group “Silent No More”, who had a bad experience with abortion and now preach about the dangers of abortion and want to criminalize it to prevent other women from having one?
Women having abortions need healthcare workers to help them do it safely, and sex workers need drivers, call screeners, and other third parties to help them work safely. But radical feminists demonize third parties as exploiters or profiteers and want to criminalize the “pimps” and brothel owners. Anti-abortionists want to criminalize abortion providers as murderers. In both cases, responsibility is removed from women even though they’re the ones initiating the acts – men and third parties are blamed instead for exploiting, coercing, and hurting women.
Probably the most disturbing parallel is that both groups share the same delusion that prostitution and abortion can be abolished through the use of criminal laws, even though this goes against all evidence and common sense. Sex work and abortion have both been around for thousands of years, and countless women have resorted to both, regardless of the laws or risks to their lives. Abortion and sex work are universal behaviours, so it’s not only impossible to abolish them, it’s dangerous and unjust to criminalize them because it hurts the supposed “victims” the most. Criminalization removes women from the protection of the law and from healthcare and social services. The Pickton murders are still very fresh in our minds, which is just one example of the horrific violence inflicted onto sex workers in criminalized environments. As for abortion, 47,000 women die every year from unsafe abortion and almost 8 million are injured – virtually all in countries where abortion is illegal.
When abortion is criminalized, women die. When sex work is criminalized, women die.
When Pierre Trudeau introduced his Omnibus bill back in 1967, he also said: “What’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code.” It’s nearly half a century later, and our private consensual sexual behavior is still being criminalized. Unfortunately, sexual repression is still alive and well. Despite our gains on the abortion issue, we’re still fighting for access and to keep our legal rights, 26 years after it was decriminalized. It’s finally time for sex work to be decriminalized too – and I believe it will be decriminalized in Canada, eventually. But unfortunately, the battle against sexual repression will continue for a long time.