Abjection: When Canadian sex workers don’t matter.


As philosophers Judith Butler and Julia Kristeva each thoroughly examine the theoretical concept of abjection, they speak to the classifications to identify those with such an attribute. The abject refers to those who are not only cast off from the rest of a homogenous society due to certain social regulations put in place by the institution in question (i.e. a school, prison, law etc.), but also those who are rejected as such in a further degrading and dehumanizing way as if they were literally trash. Julia Kristeva (1982) well describes this repugnant-like categorization of the abject in her essay, Approaching Abjection. She describes abjection as being “immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you.” Judith Butler (1993) reinforces Kristeva’s depiction of abjection as a foul being in her Introduction to Bodies That Matter as “those “unlivable” and “uninhabitable” zones of social life.” Thus, these illustrations of the abject describe such beings as not deserving of trust, goodwill or even consideration for decent wellbeing. As far as those who are not abject are concerned, the abject don’t matter.

Many of those who are abject recognize the very nature of their abjection, however, many of them simply cannot exist without doing so. Butler (1993) further describes the acknowledgement of the abject’s own status as they feel compelled to allow their horrid label to remain as they are bound to do so by ruling institutions. This is poses a requirement for the abject to undergo if they can ever achieve any forms of autonomy or self-governance (Butler, 1993). Therefore, governing institutions hold an incredible force of power over the abject. This power, as Butler and Kristeva confer, as macro or large-scale as it can be, functions more forcefully in a micro or individual form—it disturbs the very minds of the abject. Kristeva (1982) further describes this relationship being deep and intimate as one is abject in the sense that the self and abjection cannot be separated from one another—one is conflicted internally when plagued by abjection. She narrates this conflict well as she articulates that the abject is not “an ob-ject facing me, which I name or imagine. Nor is it an ob-jest, an otherness fleeing in a systematic quest of desire…the abject has only quality of the object—that of being opposed to I” (Kristeva, 1982). Kristeva (1982) recognizes that this conflict is deeply controversial to the self as one’s self does not whole-heartedly embody this horrid classification in nearly the ways in which the definitions of abjection portray them to be so. This portrayal is what Butler (1993) refers to as materialization by which is accomplished by an aggressive repetition of the regulatory norms that govern the abject identities within the institution in question. However, as Butler (1993) describes that this reiteration is a requirement for governing institutions to force over the abject identities they monitor as an evident indication that this materialization is never full. It is in fact a sedimented discourse as it attempts to illustrate a more stable government than it really is (Butler, 1993). Given this reality, the abject resist their abjection and the consequential rulings associated with their abject identity by resisting the very institutions that place them there in the first place.

This theoretical concept can be made much clearer with the application of an abject identity many of us are familiar with and the rulings of an institution which poses them as abject: Canadian sex workers and their profession criminalized by the Canadian government. Specifically, I look at the ways in which Canadian sex workers are generally not protected by Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act as many critics, including sex workers, have shamed the bill for its heavy focus on abolishing sex work without real concern for the safety of sex workers.

Since the Bedford decision where the Supreme Court of Canada directed that the previous sex work laws were unconstitutional for denying safety to those working in the trade, the Harper government at the time responded. Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, held strong anti-prostitution features by criminalizing the purchase, advertisement and communication of the selling of sexual services in public spaces (PACE Society). At a distance, it may seem ideal to Canadians to criminalize the ‘johns’ who buy services and exploit workers—especially with the hopes for the abolishment of sex work. However, contrary to its lengthy title, Bill C-36 does not offer protection for sex workers from being exploited. According to a statement released by the PACE Society (2015), an organization and registered charity “by, with, and for sex workers” to “provide violence prevention and support services to sex workers in Vancouver”, sex workers aired their apprehensions that Bill C-36 shoves them into more isolated areas to meet clients. Bill C-36 makes it more complicated for sex workers to screen clients for safe precautions and can victimize them further by making them more vulnerable to extreme acts of violence in comparison to the previous laws that were struck down. In effect, these laws push sex workers outside into more isolated and dangerous areas, thereby increasing their vulnerability to violence where no one is looking, or worse, cares to notice.

Furthermore, for street sex workers who are also Indigenous, these laws do not aid them further. Rather, as Naomi Sayers and Sarah Hunt (2015) explain, these laws take away agency from indigenous sex workers further by continuously seeing their bodies as passively awaiting to be violated, thereby normalizing the violence within the lives of indigenous women. Realistically, Bill C-36, a law that attempts to protect sex workers further from exploitation does not do so in its abolitionist form—thus revealing the sedimented nature of the very discourse it reinforces. Sayers and Hunt (2015) reinforce this reality when they question, “How is a punitive system, which denies sex workers’ agency and personhood, a suitable avenue through which to support them? It isn’t.” Bill C-36 instead reinforces their abject identities, especially as many of sex workers are either unable to leave the work or are able to survive because of it. Hence, many sex workers are compelled to embody the role as sex worker whether they choose to or not. For Indigenous sex workers, it repeats the ongoing colonial history of failing to protect Indigenous women from violence when, in fact, it further violates their personhood.

Kristeva (1982) points out that any crime reveals the fragility of the law, but when that crime is abject, such as sex work, it heightens the display of such fragility. Bill C-36 instead reveals that the lives of sex workers don’t matter. And yet, “from it’s place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master” (Kristeva, 1982). Sex workers will keep advocating for better laws that will indeed protect them regardless of their desire, or lack-thereof, to leave the trade.

Cover image from John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail
Butler, J. (1993). Introduction. Bodies that matter (pp. 1-23). Routledge.
Kristeva, J. (1982). Approaching abjection (pp. 1-31). Powers of horror: essays on abjection. Columbia University Press.
PACE Society. (2014, June 5). Sex workers in Vancouver oppose the conservative government’s proposed prostitution legislation. [Media release]. Retrieved from http://www.pace-society.org/
Sayers, N. & Hunt S. (2015, January 22). Abolition of sex work won’t end violence against native women. Globe and Mail. Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/abolition-of-sex-work-wont-end-violence-against-native-women/article22572753/

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