The last couple of years have been rough in terms of bad news all around: a global pandemic, numerous assaults on democracy, climate change, police brutality, war in Ukraine, inflation. To add to this dumpster fire, leaked documents show that Roe v. Wade is on its way to being reversed in America. This reversal will overturn constitutional protections for abortion in the U.S.
Last week, Canadian Blood Services announced that they would no longer ban blood and plasma donations from sex workers Instead, they would only accept donations from sex workers who haven’t seen a client in more than a year. On the surface, these two events seem unrelated. Today, I would like to connect the dots, and talk about how sex workers, bodily autonomy, and reproductive rights are interconnected.
(Spoiler alert: the answer to any rhetorical questions below is always patriarchy. Always.)
Let’s start with the Canadian Blood Services news. Until now, sex workers (and our clients) were banned from donating blood and plasma for life. Now they are recommending that Health Canada approve a one year ban from the person’s last time engaging in sex work either as a provider or a client. They will be considering eliminating any ban in the future.
The 45 year old ban for life is based on an erroneous assumption that sex workers, due to their profession, are somehow more at risk of having bloodborne diseases such as HIV/AIDS or STIs. Here are the facts: a 2001 study reports that 90 per cent of sex workers in Victoria B.C. used condoms during anal or vaginal intercourse with clients. Moving forward to 2021, the UNAIDS Global Update found for the age 15-49 demographic in Western and Central Europe and North America, sex workers account for only 0.4 per cent of new HIV infections. So not only is the ban not based in science or reason, but what exactly is exchanging sex for money? Which sex acts do they mean? What definition are we going by?
The same powers that be who oppress women, oppress sex workers. Blood bans reinforce rigid heteronormative values. The ban for men who have sex with men was only reversed last year and will only be allowed without restriction in September. Such policy decisions make outcasts out of marginalized groups.
At the height of the pandemic, all strip clubs in Ontario were closed due to a moral panic concerning outbreaks in Toronto clubs, at the same time as bars and pole dancing studios remained open. Now the town of Newmarket, Ontario has voted to ban massage parlors, a decision that disproportionally affects and discriminates against Asian sex workers. We are either painted as vectors of disease, or victims of human trafficking– never as grown ass women who made a choice. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: decriminalization is key for healthier outcomes for sex workers.
Everyone should have the right to do what they wish with their body, and sleep with whomever they please (the usual disclaimers about consent and age apply, of course). Everyone should have access to free, science based sexual education. What is the harm of learning about your body, consent, and safe sex? How on Earth did it take three attempts until Canada banned conversion therapy? While we’re on the subject, I apologize if I’m stepping on religious sensibilities, but publicly funded schools should be teaching sex ed. We shouldn’t settle for a public education system that sets up our kids to have kids of their own before they’re ready. We shouldn’t settle for a public education system that doesn’t teach consent and healthy relationship skills.
The same people who criminalize sex work, criminalize other “serious offences” against sexual norms such as medical treatment for trans people and access to abortion. Why, in the U.S, were only married women allowed access to the pill until the 1970s, when it was approved by the FDA in 1960? And why is it still so expensive?
Again, these are instances of grown ass women making the best choice for themselves at that time. Is it really a choice if you can’t access sexual education and birth control to begin with? Is it really a choice when in many jurisdictions worldwide, the possession of a condom could result in a prostitution charge?
Abortion bans have the biggest implications for marginalized women. Poor women, racialized women, migrant women, and rural women have less access to abortion to begin with. Under a ban, they would have even less health care options because they can’t afford to travel elsewhere. They are far less likely to be able to afford a lawyer if they face criminal charges in place where abortion is criminalized.
Analogously, marginalized sex workers are less likely to be able to afford a lawyer if they face criminal charges related to their work. More and more, we live in a system designed to make criminals where there is no crime. It’s the war on drugs, rebranded, and there are more potential criminals to catch. Exciting times for law enforcement, but not for the rest of us.
At times like these, many Canadians like to breathe a sigh of relief and express gratitude that things are better here than in the U.S. And yet–in Ontario, migrant workers have no provincial health coverage. Farms are isolated. There is next to no public transit. Even in urban centres, you have to pay out of pocket. There is often a language barrier. Abortion care for migrant women is only possible largely to due to mutual aid (if you would like to donate money towards abortion access and sexual health services, I recommend donating to Choice in Health Clinic. They help support migrant workers, and are sex work allies.). Nationwide, due to a combination of geography and poor policy, abortion access is patchy.
I don’t want to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. I would much rather be naked and glistening on a stage. Some may disagree with my choice to live outside the bounds of conventional morality, but that should still be my choice to make.
Repeat after me: Sex work is real work! Abortion is healthcare! My body, my choice!
Natasha Darling is a pseudonym to protect the author’s true identity from the stigma and harm associated with her sex work. Darling is a stripper and community organiser based in Toronto.