FIRST – Feminist Allies

FIRST is a group of feminists working for the decriminalization of sex work in Canada. Here is an op-ed by them that was published in the Vancouver Sun.


A 2010 deadline for prostitution

Decriminalization and a sex worker cooperative in time for the Games would provide safety and equal rights


Joyce Arthur and Tamara O’Doherty, Special to the Sun

Published: Thursday, December 06, 2007

Many feminists believe that adult sex work in Canada should be completely decriminalized.

To that end, Vancouver-based “First” is the only feminist organization in North America advocating the decriminalization of prostitution. First supports the right of sex workers to engage in consensual sex with other adults without being criminalized.

We believe that sex workers have the right to safe working conditions, the right to equal protection and benefit of the law, and the right to have their dignity, autonomy and liberty respected.

Decriminalization means the repeal of all criminal laws relating to adult prostitution. In Canada, prostitution is not technically illegal, but most activities associated with it are criminalized, including soliciting in public and living off the avails of prostitution.

Although decriminalization will not on its own stop the injustices experienced by sex industry workers, First believes that we cannot eliminate violence against sex workers and ensure their equal rights until we address the illegal and stigmatized status of their work.

Recent media reports have sown fears of a large increase in sex trafficking for the 2010 Olympics. Columnist Daphne Bramham, for instance, warned in a recent Vancouver Sun column that the city should brace for an explosion in prostitution and trafficking in 2010.

However, there is no evidence of dramatic, let alone “explosive,” growth in sex industry activity at large sporting events. In 2006, we saw headlines that 40,000 women would be trafficked into Germany for soccer’s World Cup.

The Swedish government funded an independent report that conclusively found that an increase in human trafficking did not occur, either during or after the World Cup. The report concluded, “The 40,000 estimate was unfounded and unrealistic.”

After the last four Games (Turin 2006, Athens 2004, Salt Lake City 2002, and Sydney 2000), there were almost no confirmed reports on the numbers of sex workers, level of violence or other associated factors. Notably, almost all anecdotal reports suggested no obvious change in level of activity.

During the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, where sex work is legal, only a marginal increase in prostitution was reported. In Salt Lake City, one confirmed report indicated that city licences for escort services increased by only 12 per cent in the period leading up to the Winter Games.

Similarly, research has found virtually no information on sex industry enforcement during the Games, suggesting that police saw little need to deploy resources towards it. After 9/11, security requirements have become the overwhelming concern at Olympic Games, with policing of minor and nuisance crime a secondary concern. In Salt Lake City, the police reassigned its vice squad to Games security duty, and made no arrests for prostitution during the Games.

First is an ally of the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities, the Vancouver group of sex worker rights activists working to establish a sex worker cooperative in time for the 2010 Games.

The cooperative will enable sex workers to benefit from collaborative ownership and self-management of their work. One feature of the project is a cooperative brothel, a worker-controlled safe space to conduct sex work.

Other plans include the creation of occupational health and safety guidelines, collectively purchasing services such as an extended medical plan, and marketing products and services.

Revenue will be used to support benevolent purposes, including a fund for the children of murdered sex workers.

Our support for a cooperative brothel is grounded in research that shows that violence levels are greatly decreased for sex workers who work indoors, compared to those on the street.

In Vancouver, the off-street sector comprises more than 80 per cent of sex workers, who report better control over their transactions with clients and, hence, improved safety.

Although Vancouver sex workers are mobilizing to address their needs, we believe the severely under-funded organizations providing services to sex workers will need greater support to prepare for 2010. This issue is particularly pressing for sex workers in the Downtown Eastside, who will likely experience increased homelessness as a result of the Games.

The immense security regime associated with the Games may end up forcing women away from their usual strolls into more isolated areas, reducing their ability to negotiate safety.

Dedicated housing and increased government funding for Vancouver organizations that work with sex workers would help address these problems.

While alarmist rhetoric continues to plague discussions on sex industry work, the lack of concern for the safety and well-being of Vancouver’s sex workers continues unabated. In light of the 69 missing women from the Downtown Eastside as well as the Pickton trial, this is deplorable and deeply troubling.

As feminists and as concerned community members, we urge the public to join us in supporting the dignity and safety of sex industry workers.

Decriminalization of adult sex work is an absolutely critical step towards improving working conditions and ending the violence.

Joyce Arthur and Tamara O’Doherty are with First, a feminist organization advocating the decriminalizing of prostitution.

Related Articles