Open Letter: Sex Workers are Disposable

This month, the message is clear: sex workers are disposable.

In 2013, Canadian sex workers launched a constitutional challenge to three of Canada’s major prostitution provisions.

These sex workers won their legal battle—Bedford v. Canada and obtained legal recognition from the highest court in the land.

Ironically and tragically Peter MacKay disregarded the decision and the spirit of Bedford by creating The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act that came into effect on Dec. 6, 2014.

This law, which criminalizes sex workers, clients, and third parties, offers no protection for women. Not only is its objective to eliminate the sex industry and everyone in it, but it also makes it easier for people to target sex workers with impunity.

The criminalization of sex work makes it more difficult for sex workers and sex work businesses to report clients or people they screen as dangerous—often barring from sex work establishments is an informal process that authorities are not made aware of.

While sex workers also screen clients, they are not permitted to work within establishments or with each other on premises for protection and security.

This month, two sex workers were killed in Quebec. The contexts of their murders were different, but the message about their lives was the same: sex workers are disposable unless they are repentant and sex workers are easy targets for predators.

The man who murdered Marylène was released temporarily on conditions that encouraged him to satisfy his sexual needs with sex workers. It was clear that he was a danger to the public, yet Marylène was not considered part of that public worth protecting.

Vanessa Petit Pied, murdered in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, received far less attention: located in an area where drug use and street sex work is prevalent, her story did not garner the same amount of attention.

In both cases, sex workers’ rights are rarely recognized until sex workers are murdered. What does this say about the ways we care for sex workers’ safety when they are alive? About the disposability of some women?

The criminalization of sex work maintains unsafe conditions for sex workers. It prohibits sex workers from created safe places to see their clients, to negotiate their work, and to access safety when needed.

The murders of over 60 women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside between 1980 and 2002 should have woken up the government up. The murder of Cindy Gladue on the Yellowhead Highway in Edmonton should have shifted the way we approach sex work.

The countless murders of sex workers across the country over the past 40 years have been ignored in favour of criminalization models.

As Mr. Bottos, the accused’s lawyer, said in his closing arguments at trial:

“She’s a prostitute. She’s there for a good time, not a long time […]” Kathryn Blaze Carlson, Globe and Mail 15 May 2015)

It’s time that the government took notice of the thousands of sex workers across the country who are trying to be heard and recognized in the fight for better working conditions and and end to violence against them.

So, we ask as Judith Butler did in The Frames of War (2009) “When is Life Grievable?”

Francine Tremblay, Jorge Briceno
Salinda Hess, Sienna Conti and Penny Pasdermajian
Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University

Bettina Bouskila
Criminology, University of Ottawa

Donna Cape, Oka