There was a time when I wouldn’t have questioned columnist Janet Bagnall’s recent declaration that 90 per cent of prostitutes have been forced into the work.
That’s more or less what I’d been told over the years by those who considered themselves expert in such matters. I, too, presumed most sex workers were victimized and exploited women manipulated by pimps, bad boyfriends and shady customers. Back then, news of a Vancouver sex worker’s campaign to build brothels for the Olympics likely would have incensed me as much as it did Ms. Bagnall last week.
But then I got out of the newsroom and met a few sex workers - maybe a couple of hundred all told. And I realized I had it all wrong. That 90-per-cent claim is neither true nor supported by any research.
I wrapped up a three-year stint this past summer as executive director of the Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society, a grassroots non-profit in Victoria, B.C. Of the many insights I gained while running PEERS, the most powerful was that sex workers were making their own choices.
Most of the women who come to PEERS are survival sex workers, and work outdoors. Their life stories were often heartbreaking and their ongoing challenges considerable, but none would have categorized themselves as broken victims forced into the trade. Their problems tended to be the problems of any disadvantaged woman; the sex trade was simply how they paid the bills.
Why do women work as prostitutes? For the money. It’s a job, and a legal one in Canada, employing tens of thousands nationwide. But our prudish inability to come to grips with that reality is exactly what has made some aspects of the industry so dangerous.
We like to paint the sex trade as a place of violence and despair. Certainly at the street level, the nightly litany of assaults, rapes, robberies and murders noted on “bad date sheets” shared among outdoor workers in Canada’s urban centres is grim affirmation of the risks under today’s conditions.
But it’s our laws and attitudes that have created those working conditions. Women are dying and suffering out there because we’ve chased them into the shadows with our anti-solicitation laws, criminalized their incomes, and denied them a legal indoor workplace.
We categorize them as victims, but treat them like lepers. Pushed into places where we don’t have to look at them, the shunned women who end up working Canada’s outdoor strolls end up as easy pickings for predators.
Like all free markets, the sex industry exists because of demand. In Canada, our mediocre efforts to stop prostitution have focused on trying to prevent girls from entering the sex trade, but in fact we’d need to channel all our energies toward stopping the buyers if we genuinely hoped to eliminate the industry.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen little evidence of that. A street-level “shame the john” campaign surfaces now and again, but generally serves only to move the trade out of a particular neighbourhood to somewhere even more dangerous for the workers.
Most people don’t buy sex on the outdoor strolls anyway. With 80 per cent or more of prostitution in Canada taking place indoors in brothels, bars, massage parlours and dance clubs, an occasional bust on the street has little effect on anything.
Ms. Bagnall contends that “prostitution is not a job like any other.” Perhaps, but what does that have to do with a sex worker’s right to a safe workplace?
You don’t have to like the industry to see the need to make things better for those who work in it. I wish we didn’t have a weapons industry, but I’d never deny a decent workplace to people working in the munitions factories. Surely we don’t want the provision of safe, regulated workplaces for all Canadians to hinge on our opinion of their line of work.
Parts of the sex industry are truly horrendous, and must be eliminated. Trafficking, pimping, coercion, the sexual exploitation of youth - none have any place in a civil society. Those who want out of the trade should be given whatever support they need to do that.
But for the adults who choose to work in the industry, what could possibly be valid rationale for continuing to deny them a proper workplace? Like it or not, sex sells, and the real crime is that we’d rather leave women to be beaten and murdered on the streets than acknowledge that.
Jody Paterson is a columnist and communications strategist working with Victoria sex workers to develop a brothel that funds social programs for disadvantaged women in the trade.
And here's the piece that sparked my response, written by Janet Bagnall, a regular columnist with The Montreal Gazette
Published: Jan. 30, 2008
Preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics are well in hand: The Canadian Security Intelligence Service is getting ready for violence. The province of British Columbia is keeping to its tight construction schedule. And Vancouver's mayor is preparing to meet the sexual needs of tourists attending the Games.
Sam Sullivan, the mayor, has said he is keeping an open mind to a proposal by Vancouver prostitutes who want to set up several co-operative brothels in time for the Olympics. Susan Davis, a prostitute, argued last fall that the city, provincial and federal government should provide a safe working environment for prostitutes in 2010 when, she is quoted as saying, tens of thousands of visitors to the Games will be looking for sex.
This bizarre notion that laws on prostitution should be altered, even temporarily, to accommodate the sexual desires of fans at large sporting events is not unique to British Columbia.
In South Africa, the former national police commissioner proposed liberalizing the country's prostitution laws for the World Cup 2010, soccer's biggest event. The commissioner is reported to have said he wanted to follow Germany's successful -- to his mind, at least -- path.
Germany, host of the 2006 World Cup, campaigned against "forced" prostitution, based on trafficked women and children, and the head of FIFA, soccer's world body, urged soccer fans to use only prostitutes who were "voluntarily" in the business. But voluntary was hardly the order of the day, with reports that as many as 40,000 women and children were trafficked into Germany to service the tens of thousands of fans at the soccer championship.
Already in South Africa, anti-trafficking activists say there are reports of street children being gathered up in readiness for the World Cup.
Sports events like Formula 1 racing, soccer championships or the Olympic Games are a magnet for human traffickers and their customers, writes University of Ottawa sociologist Richard Poulin.
In an essay this year, Poulin criticized proposals to relax prostitution laws for sports events, whether in South Africa or Canada. (In Canada, paying for sex between consenting adults is legal, although other activities such as soliciting in a public place, being in a bawdy house or forcing a person to prostitute herself are not.)
Poulin argued that simply removing prostitution from the streets, as Vancouver's Susan Davis suggests, does not turn prostitution, the business of selling one's body to strangers, into a safe activity. In Quebec, Poulin pointed out in his essay, at least five of 14 prostitutes killed in the past decade were "call girls," working in the presumed safety of a known, private environment.
And if it's true that prostitutes are a target for serial killers, Poulin wrote, it's also true for other marginalized groups such as young gay men. Representatives of one of the most vulnerable of all groups in Vancouver, native women, are adamantly against legalizing prostitution. The Aboriginal Women's Action Network in B.C. has said that legalizing brothels will only increase the number of prostitutes.
With an estimated 90 per cent of prostitutes having been forced into the sex trade, increasing the number of prostitutes is not a good idea. Research shows that the vast majority of prostitutes have been trafficked or been sexually victimized in their homes or suffer from drug addiction.
In an interview with the Vancouver Sun, Daisy Kler, a social worker with Vancouver Rape Relief, said the proposal for a network of legal brothels "entrenches prostitution as legitimate, and therefore legitimatizes pimps and traffickers." Kler added, "I do not believe the public would agree that this is a good idea, to have some disposable women available for the Olympics."
Prostitution is not a job like any other. It can't possibly be: One person pays to use another's body for his own gratification.
Allowing, never mind endorsing, this activity poses, as Poulin writes, "serious ethical questions in a country that pretends to encourage equality between men and women."
That country should be ours.
Janet Bagnall writes for the Montreal Gazette.