Debates around sex work are longstanding, both inside and outside of feminism. Within the context of feminist theory and activism, the issue of sex work usually revolves around questions of women’s equality and violence against women. More recently however, a recognition of sex work as work and an emphasis on sex worker agency has become central in many feminist circles. The tension between understandings of sex work as violence and sex work labour with a focus on agency maps on to broader debates about structure vs. agency. That is, some emphasize the violence in sex work as a symptom of women’s structural inequality and the persistence of patriarchy, while others emphasize the capacity for individual women to make choices about their bodies and their livelihoods on their own terms, without being shamed. Of course, the reality is that cisgender women are not the only people who do sex work, even if they do make up the majority of individuals involved in the industry. Additionally, questions of sex work and structural violence are complex and cannot be reduced to the category of “woman” alone. How does a structural critique of sex work shift when we center white supremacy or colonialism? Further, how does an emphasis on the violence in sex work distract from the myriad of other harms experienced by sex workers by communities, policies, and governments who do not listen to their voices, knowledge, and experiences? All to say, when considered intersectionally and historically, rather than solely through a gendered lens, there is much to consider when it comes to sex work. The authors we will read in the ‘Assigned Resources’ section of the module will tackle some of these larger questions.

Before digging into specifics, let’s briefly go over some of the different existing legislative approaches to sex work. 

1) Legalization 

2) Partial Criminalization

In 1999, Sweden passed the Sex Purchase Act which criminalizes the buyers but not the sellers of sexual services. Partial criminalization or “end demand” approaches are often rooted in 1970s feminist understandings of gender and patriarchy, which view prostitution as a symptom of women’s inequality and as an act of gendered violence. Under this model, also referred to as the ‘Nordic model,’ sex workers’ assertions of agency are, for the most part, deemed irrelevant and as evidence of false consciousness. 

Historically, sex work in Canada has not been explicitly illegal, however, practicing it without doing something illegal was essentially impossible. In Section 213 of the Canadian Criminal Code, for example, communicating in public for the purposes of prostitution was illegal. In Section 210 of the CC, keeping a “bawdy house”, any place used for the purposes of prostitution, was also criminalized. Lastly, Section 212 of the CC, “living off of the avails of prostitution” worked to criminalize anyone involved in the business with an individual or group of sex workers, including bouncers, accountants, or any other employee. These three sections of the CCC were struck down as violating section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2014, inspired by the Nordic model, Bill C-36 (Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act – PCEPA) was enacted and is the current Canadian legal framework governing sex work. Under PCEPA, the selling of sexual services is legal but the purchasing of sex is not.

3) Decriminalization

New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act (2003) permits the sale of sex by individuals over 18. A brothel operator certificate is required with more than four employees, and for the most part, sex work is treated like any other kind of business. Brothels are subject to the Health and Safety in Employment Act, and all reasonable steps must be taken to minimize harms or businesses can face a fine.


… while emerging from radically different ideological positions and embodied in varying policy approaches, each of these responses is grounded in stigmatic assumptions. The laws reflect and reproduce risk discourses that contribute to structural stigma, legitimating risk-management tactics that exclude sex workers from full citizenship.

Chris Bruckert and Stacey Hannem, “Rethinking the Prostitution Debates: Transcending Structural Stigma in Systemic Responses to Sex Work,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society / Revue Canadienne Droit et Société 28, no. 1, 2013, 46.

That is, across all legislative approaches, sex work remained a “discredited identity” (49) subject to institutional management and regulation. The collective stigma attached to sex work reveals that its regulation is less about protecting sex workers than upholding moral standards. Sex workers rights organizations and advocates have been, and continue to, push back against this collective stigma and advance understandings of sex work that may lead to rights and protections that benefit sex workers and acknowledge their agency and actual needs. 

Works Cited
Bruckert, C. and S. Hannem. “Rethinking the Prostitution Debates: Transcending Structural Stigma in Systemic Responses to Sex Work.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society/Revue Canadienne Droit et Societe 28, no. 1 (2013): 43–63.

BIG IDEA: Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism is a term that has become ubiquitous in the academy, activism, and the non-profit sector. It is a broad term with various meanings depending on which theoretical paradigm one is reading it though (e.g. Marxist, Foucauldian).

Watch the following video for an overview of various understandings of neoliberalism:

What is Neoliberalism?
View Time: 9:34 Minutes
Video source

Neoliberalism is the political rationality, or logic of governing, that has been dominant for the last several decades. This is not the same as the government, but rather, the logic or rationality that governments use to manage populations. And in spite of various interpretations and foci, there are some general characteristics of neoliberalism that can be pointed to, including:

  • Governing at a distance:
    Neoliberal logic often accompanies governments cutting social welfare programs and a ‘hands off’ approach to the market.
  • Valorization of self-governance:
    Neoliberal rationalities champion the individual and its freedoms and capacities at the expense of the collective and often without regard to historical factors.
  • Discourse of responsibilization:
    Because the individual is championed within neoliberal logic, the discourse of responsibility is paramount. Individuals must be responsible for themselves rather than expecting government support.
  • Rhetoric of “choice”:
    Ideal neoliberal subjects are those who not only take responsibility for themselves, but make the right choices. The emphasis on choice buttresses the valorization of self-governance and the discourse of responsibility, in that subjects will be rewarded for making the ‘right’ choices, and are responsible for the consequences of their own ‘bad’ choices.
  • Risk management:
    Within neoliberalism, the management of ‘risky’ or ‘at risk’ populations is central. Whether ‘at risk’ youth or populations, markets, or occupations deemed ‘risky,’ individuals are expected to assess their own risk using a cost-benefit analytic approach.