Decriminalizing Domestic Violence and Fighting Prostitution Abolition: Lessons Learned From Canada’s Anti-Carceral Feminist Struggles


This article offers a cautionary tale for efforts to decriminalize domestic violence through a retrospective analysis of Canadian feminist legal activism to decriminalize sex work. Both domestic violence and sex work are contested terrains of activism, litigation, and scholarship and have come up against the disparate views of criminalization as necessary to protect women from violence, versus criminalization as compounding women’s potential risks for violence. Through the example of Canadian feminist jurisprudence in R v Bedford, wherein the Supreme Court of Canada recognized the endangerment of women as resulting from the criminalization of sex work, I explore the liminal space following this decision, and how regressive legislation was introduced to re-entrench carceralism in the breach of a seeming feminist victory. My focus is on how carceral feminism continues to occupy the liminal space as a force of colonial violence, further endangering Indigenous women. I draw linkages between several violent murders of street-involved Indigenous women and the severing of allyship among feminists, sex workers, and Indigenous women over the potential decriminalization of sex work. Finally, I suggest that opposition to the decriminalization of sex work is successfully argued by an emerging force of carceral feminism: neo-abolitionist feminists who have appropriated a politics of abolition and, yet, may have deepened carceralism in the lives of Indigenous women.

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Except where otherwise noted, content in this journal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Published: 2021-12-01
Pages:66 to 77
Section:Special Issue: Criminalisation and the Violence(s) of the State
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How to Cite
Balfour, G. (2021) “Decriminalizing Domestic Violence and Fighting Prostitution Abolition: Lessons Learned From Canada’s Anti-Carceral Feminist Struggles”, International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 10(4), pp. 66-77. doi: 10.5204/ijcjsd.1993.

Author Biography

King's University College - Western University

Gillian Balfour is a Professor of socio-legal studies and feminist criminology. She has published in a wide array of areas related to carceral power and its effects on women: sentencing law reform impacts on Indigenous women and the implications of restorative justice in the context of gender-based violence; the intersection of rape narratives; and legal narratives in sexual assault sentencing decisions. She is currently exploring feminicidio in Latin America as a conceptual frame for the disappearance of Indigenous women into prisons based on her archival study of how the state documents prisoner suicides, treatment, and discipline in Canadian women’s prisons throughout the 20th century. She has documented the lived experiences of precarity of prisoner re-entry into Canadian cities. Her most recent project explores the place of organized labour inside prisons.