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Can Prostitution be a Safe, Legal Career Option?

National media have been buzzing with word of three sex-trade workers pursuing a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms against Canada’s prostitution laws in an Ontario court. They are asking a judge to invalidate three Criminal Code provisions that make it illegal to run a bawdy house, to communicate for the purposes of prostitution, and to live off the avails of prostitution. Their message?  We can’t possibly do worse at protecting vulnerable women than we are now.

Even if this is true, would changing Canadian law so that it becomes legal – and socially acceptable – for men to purchase women for sexual services really be a step forward in protecting vulnerable, victimized women?

In an editorial October 7, the National Post called for the legalization of the sex trade. The Post argued it is unreasonable to disagree that current laws fail to protect women. That may be the case. But it is unrealistic, dishonest and simplistic to suggest that the answer is to do away with laws in regard to prostitution altogether.

Some suggest laws to fully legalize and move the sex trade indoors would better protect women. Could this be true? Robert Pickton preyed on women who existed on the very margins of society. His victims were struggling to exist on the bottom rung of the sex trade ladder. They weren’t working in what is known as “high track” prostitution – and it is doubtful that the most desperate and addicted would be found working indoors in the bawdy houses, massage parlours and escort services that would surely proliferate if the Charter challenge is successful. 

The Post editorial says, “… every Canadian metropolis, at any moment, has a large collection of 'missing’ women who live in a precarious demimonde of disconnectedness and invisibility. They make easy prey for sociopaths, since the furtive, illegal nature of their work requires that they jump into the cars of strangers after a few seconds of commercial negotiation. If they don’t show up at ‘work’ the next morning, they aren’t missed – except perhaps by their pimps (who must surely rank among the biggest supporters of the current legal regime). In regards to the larger society, they get noticed only when their remains pile up high enough to attract statistical attention.”

There is nothing in this clever bit of prose that compels me to believe we should legalize and normalize prostitution. Rather, it confirms that as a society we should be doing our best to ensure these women don’t go missing; that no one feels selling their body is essential for survival.

Prostituting one’s self is seldom a question of “lifestyle choice”. The women murdered by Pickton were not engaged in the sex trade because it seemed like the best of a range of possible life-giving and self-fulfilling options they had before them. They were representative of those trapped in the sex trade – either trafficked in against their will or forced to sell their bodies for a cruel survival.

Eliminating these prostitution laws will do nothing to protect the most vulnerable women. In fact, it might well have the opposite effect, pushing the most desperate and least desirable further to the margins of life and uncertainty.

And for those who ‘passed muster’ and found work in a bawdy house or the like - would they really be any safer indoors? Or, would it not just afford would-be abusers greater privacy?

A few days ago on facebook, my friend Natasha Falle, a former sex trade worker, a much sought after speaker and teacher on the subject, and a strong advocate for and resource to women in the sex trade (especially those seeking a way out) said this in her status update:

 “Pro-prostitution groups don’t represent all people involved in the sex trade. They claim indoor prostitution would be safe if it weren’t for laws, and only street prostitutes are at risk of violence, drug addiction and pimp abuse. This is a lie, and it is a betrayal to street peers.

My experience has taught me that there is violence wherever there are closed doors. Whether this happens behind home doors, hotel doors or car doors; there's violence. “

Natasha is right, of course. Nicole Parisien, a 33 year old Aboriginal woman, was working “inside” when she was beaten and strangled to death in 2007. Ms. Parisien advertised her services online, and prostituted herself in an apartment building under the watch of a security camera. This did not protect her life.

The men who abuse and kill vulnerable women have no regard for laws governing assault, murder and manslaughter. Why should we think they would respect legalized indoor prostitution?

It is not the law that puts these women in danger. It is poverty of relationships and resources, exploitation and deception, homelessness and addiction that drive women to desperation. It is also the notion that somehow it’s okay to buy another person for use as a sex object. And it is the “johns” and the pimps, interested solely in their own gratification, who exploit and use some of the most vulnerable women (and boys, and men) in our society.

Perhaps our laws do need to be changed, but not in the fashion proposed by the three or the Post.  Perhaps, Canadian laws governing prostitution should instead focus on those who exploit – the johns and the pimps. There is no justice in laws that serve to further victimize the victims, the women, girls and boys ensnared in the sex trade. There is also no justice in seeking to normalize what is – with only rare exceptions – a tragic consequence of poverty, desperation and a myriad of unhealthy societal realities.

Over a decade ago, Canadians were encouraged to compare our health to those of sixty year old Swedes. Perhaps, it’s now time to compare our prostitution laws against Sweden’s decade old change to its prostitution laws. The Swedish government took the view that prostitution is a form of violence against and exploitation of women. They changed Swedish laws to criminalize not the women trapped in the sex trade but the men who buy and pimp them. Sweden now has one of the lowest prostitution rates in the world.

Prostitution is not a safe, legal career option. Let’s not pretend it can be. This is not a time for either the courts or the media to determine – or eliminate – Canada’s laws on prostitution. It is a time to encourage Parliamentarians to take decisive action to strike at the root causes that place vulnerable women in the hands of violent men.


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