Naomi Sayers is an Anishnaabe Kwe, indigenous feminist and sex work activist with experience working in the sex trade in various places in Canada, including northern Ontario. Sarah Hunt is a Kwagiulth writer and researcher with 15 years experience working on issues of violence and justice in indigenous communities.
In describing her choice to enter sex work, Naomi – one of the authors of this article – says that when she first moved to London, Ont., she only had a few bags of clothing and only a few dollars in her back pocket. Originally from Northern Ontario, Naomi had no friends or family in the area and no idea where she was going to live. Naomi moved in the context of sex work and, in that same context, was able to overcome homelessness. Some might argue that her choice to enter sex work was not a "real choice" but she sees it as a choice that was much better than the other choices she could have made at that time in her life.
Throughout the Bedford constitutional challenge, the state argued that it was the choice of women to enter sex work that contributed to the violence in their lives. But in choosing to engage in sex work, women, including indigenous women, are not consenting to violence in their lives. In continuing national discussions on violence against indigenous women, there are some people who say that abolishing sex work is key to ending this violence. But we are here, as indigenous women, to voice a different perspective.
It is clear that there are some things we can all agree on. Indigenous women's lives are shaped through systemic racism, sexism and poverty. Colonialism has portrayed us as people against whom violence is normalized – expected, even. And in order for the onslaught of violence against us to end, these root conditions must be addressed.
Sex work abolitionists often see poverty or homelessness as factors that "push" women into prostitution, where prostitution is seen as a form of human trafficking. Their solution to these issues, however, is not to increase social supports to help end poverty or to increase access to affordable and safe housing to help end homelessness. No, the alleged solution is to push women in prostitution further to the periphery by isolating and alienating them from safety through the criminalization of their lives.
And anti-sex work advocates often equate these root factors with indigenous women's inherent victimization. Native women are not afforded the same level of agency as everyone else; they are merely passive bodies waiting to be violated. This only furthers the marginalization of indigenous women and normalizes the violence in indigenous sex workers' lives.
How is a punitive system, which denies sex workers' agency and personhood, a suitable avenue through which to support them? It isn't.
History tells us that the legal system in this country has failed at keeping indigenous safe and has in fact been an agent of harm. It is police who have arrested idigenous women at rates that resulted in a 109 per cent increase in the number of indigenous women in federal penitentiaries over the pastt decade. We have laws against rape, murder and abduction – yet we know Canadian law has failed to prevent us from being targets of these forms of violence. Police turned a blind eye while more than 60 women – mostly sex workers – were abducted or killed in Vancouver's downtown east side. We have no faith in a system to 'protect' indigenous sex workers from harm when reality tells us they will instead arrest us.
The tactics of abolitionists have taken an equally dangerous turn in this country, including those of indigenous women who vocalize this stance. They have engaged in outing peoples' sex work history, resulting in them losing their jobs and remaining fearful of unwanted police attention. They have waged attack campaigns against sex workers online and in person. They have labeled all sex workers as victims even when an individual says "no, I'm choosing this line of work today." These tactics are themselves forms of violence and we insist that these violences must be stopped.
In the end, rather than seeing increased policing and legal intervention as the pathway to solve these conditions, we see the importance of supporting indigenous women where they're at today regardless of the choices they make and the utility of community-based initiatives to increase safety and wellness for all. We see that even in the midst of poverty, abuse, and marginalization, native women's daily decisions need to be respected, and the lives of those women choosing to sell sex are as valuable as those choosing to work for government agencies. Violence against all native women needs to be made unacceptable, including against those who work in the sex trade.
If you take the time to listen to the voices of indigenous sex workers, what comes through is resilience. It is sex workers who must determine the best way to support themselves, not national organizations, police or politicians who believe that in order to truly abolish prostitution you must get rid of the sex worker first.
Sex workers are persons who are worthy of freedom, respect and love. And they deserve to be treated respectfully today, even as they stand in the way of abolishing prostitution by refusing to "exit" and refusing to be portrayed as a silent victim.