On Dec. 6, 2014, Canada’s new prostitution legislation came into effect. Prostitution survivors, aboriginal women’s groups, anti-violence workers, and equality rights advocates and scholars celebrated the decision to criminalize johns, pimps, and third-party advertising for sexual services, and to decriminalize prostituted women in most circumstances. We welcomed the investments in support and exiting services, although much more is still needed. While not quite yet the “Nordic Model” of prostitution policy, we are beginning to move in the direction of equality for all women by working to abolish prostitution.
Some opponents have claimed this new legislation reproduces colonial state violence against aboriginal women and girls by increasing police power. What this analysis fails to recognize is that prostitution is not a traditional activity for aboriginal women and, in fact, is “the world’s oldest oppression.” It is a system, like Canada’s residential school system, that has been imposed on our aboriginal communities. Prostitution is part of the continuum of colonial male violence against aboriginal women and girls, telling us incorrectly that we are disposable in life and that predators can harm us without recourse. The end point of that continuum is the thousands of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, an ongoing massacre that continues to tell us that we are disposable, even in death, with no official inquiry or accountability.
Prostitution, akin to the residential school system, is an institution that continues to have devastating impacts on the lives of aboriginal women and girls, who are disproportionately involved in street-level prostitution. Prostitution is an industry that relies on disparities in power to exist. We can see clearly that women, and especially aboriginal women and girls, are funnelled into prostitution as a result of systemic inequalities such as their lack of access to housing, loss of land, culture, and languages, poverty, high rates of male violence, involvement with the foster care system, suicide, criminalization, addiction, and disability. To imagine that prostitution, a system that feeds these inequalities, should be allowed or encouraged, is dangerously misguided and supports the ongoing systemic harms against our women and girls. In the same ways that those who came before us were funnelled into the residential school system “for our own good,” the attempts to now funnel us into the system of prostitution, and to support the rights of pimps and johns, is also being incorrectly portrayed as being for our own benefit and protection.
Cherry Smiley (project manager, violence prevention and safety, at the Native Women’s Association of Canada and member of the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution), continue reading here.