Sunday, November 12, 2006

Prostitution and violence
Nov. 10, 2006

The media came calling this week, with a short-lived and whirlwind intensity that I have come to recognize as the hallmark of being “in the news.” The subject at hand was a new report that briefly touched on drug-fuelled parties in the Western Communities luring youth into the violence of the sex trade.
It was the briefest of mentions, really: One paragraph in a 78-page report. But for me, it would be the dominant force that would rule my Tuesday.
As someone who works at an agency that helps sex workers, I would be in high demand that day and the night before for my comments about the rumoured party place. I had little to offer, having never heard of the place. But politicians and others waded in with gasps of disbelief, and demands for police to “do something.”
The story blew in and out of the headlines in little more than a day. With no young, partying Western Communities children stepping forward to fuel more coverage with confessions of being lured into the sex trade at parties, interest in the story faded fast. Given how important the report actually is, that’s a shame.
Researchers from the Justice Institute of B.C. spent two years talking to 110 youth and adult sex workers about the province’s sex trade. Victoria and Campbell River were part of the study, as was Kamloops and Prince George. The study’s grim revelations underline that violence is commonplace in the sex trade, but it gets its start at home.
I found that to be the report’s key finding: That the “vast majority” of people interviewed for the study reported that their first experience of violence was as children in their own homes, usually at the hands of somebody who was supposed to be looking after them. Childhood sexual abuse was also a significant factor.
Everyone in the sex trade has a different story to tell, of course, and their stories aren’t all sad, predictable or anticipated. But ask them about their experiences around violence, and some common themes emerge. Kids who are hit, hurt and shamed while growing up are at higher risk of ending up with violence in their lives as adults, too.
The problem with having the media focus almost exclusively on the Western Communities party-place aspect of the report is that the kids and adults who most need the help get bypassed yet again. Everybody gets hysterical about scary bogeymen luring good middle-class kids to a ruinous life through drugs and parties, and nobody does a damn thing for the kids who the report is actually talking about.
Those kids are infinitely fixable, capable of turning their lives around even in the face of astounding life tragedy and disadvantage. They just need the right services at the right time, for as long as they need it. That’s a small price to pay for the chance to see today’s damaged children grow into tomorrow’s healthy parents and grandparents.
But they barely got a mention in all the media hubbub this week. Rather than real support for B.C.’s struggling families - where the participants in the Justice Institute study clearly haled from - I fear the conclusion we’ll draw based on the media coverage is that what’s really needed is yet another awareness program warning teens to stay away from party houses and drugs.
I guess it’s uncomfortable to take a genuine look at the sex trade, because that would require acknowledging that it exists the way it does because of us. We made the laws. Our men are the buyers. The reason the kids in the report virtually all said they wouldn’t dream of going to police with their problems is because we made it so they have a lot to lose by coming forward.
We’ve got to quit pretending that the sex trade happens only at some scary place on the outskirts of town, and that the answer is more enforcement. Police have their role to play, sure, but they’re just one small piece of the puzzle. We can’t continue our wasted efforts to “eliminate” prostitution, a folly that does nothing except to force the issue into ever-darker corners.
People are always asking me how we’ll “solve” the problems of the sex trade. Until we figure out why men buy sex, I don’t think that’s possible. Even if we could prevent every Canadian child from heading into the sex trade from this point on, children from other countries would simply flood in to meet the demand. That’s the unassailable law of the market.
But we can certainly do something to make life less miserable for those in the more unsavoury parts of the industry. We can support families and communities in raising healthy and happy kids in peaceful households, and helping children grow up to be better parents than their own parents knew how to be. The things that people need to step away from despair and hopelessness are within our reach to give.
Or we can let the issue die in a blaze of media coverage that completely misses the point. Surely not.

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