Friday, October 09, 2009

Pointless prostitution laws help no one but hurt many

Sex work is back in the headlines again, and will be for quite some time with a constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws finally underway this week.
I wish miracles for the three brave sex workers who launched the challenge. That’s what they’ll need to survive the savaging they’re in for at the hands of those who staunchly oppose anything that might make it easier or safer to be a sex worker.
The case in front of the Ontario Superior Court is challenging three sections of the Criminal Code: the “common bawdyhouse” laws that make anything to do with operating a brothel illegal; procuring or living off the avails of prostitution; and communicating for the purposes of prostitution.
In deciding the case, Justice Susan Himel will be gauging whether our prostitution laws are proportionate to their purpose, or if they have the effect of forcing sex workers into unsafe situations where they can be preyed on by deviants and serial killers.
So let’s ponder those two issues for a moment.
Sex work is legal in Canada, yet everything required for a sale to take place is illegal - location, marketing, even the earnings. That renders the work just legal enough for men to be able to acquire paid sex anytime they like in any city, and just illegal enough to continue the pretence that Canadian society is hard at work trying to eradicate prostitution. What exactly IS the purpose of laws like that?
As for whether the impact of the laws is proportionate to their purpose, I can’t wait to hear the arguments on that point. How many vulnerable women have died across Canada just in the last decade because our laws forced them to work out of sight in the rough parts of town, getting into cars with strangers? How could a gruesome impact like that possibly be proportionate in a civilized society?
What gets me the most about the laws around prostitution is the grand hypocrisy of it all.
We wrung our hands and wept for all the missing women when Robert Pickton’s exploits were the news of the day. We went to their vigils. But we didn’t do one thing that made life safer for the women working our streets.
We tell ourselves that only deviants and weirdos buy sex, and only victimized, desperate people sell it. But Canadians of every stripe are frequenting the places where sex is sold, and leading secret lives as part-time sex workers. Were a scarlet letter ever to appear on all the chests of people who have ever bought and sold sex, I think you’d be amazed to see who was in the club.
The sale of sex is a rip-roaring business in every Canadian community. Every moment spent denying that is another nail in the coffin of women working in isolation and danger on the nation’s outdoor strolls. Outdoor work is the mere tip of the iceberg in terms of the scope of the industry, but it’s certainly the place where the most negative impacts of our poorly considered laws are felt.
I understand the powerful emotions that drive the abolitionist movement. I know that some people have had tragic experiences in the sex trade. It’s definitely a job for adults only, and even then it’s not something that most people are cut out for.
But it’s still a job. Occasional monsters and victims notwithstanding, the buyers are for the most part ordinary people. The sellers are by and large happy for the money. Meanwhile, those who aren’t happy in the work take no solace from the law, because it can only punish them further.
I read an opinion piece the other day from an abolitionist exhorting Canadians to resist anything that might normalize prostitution as a legitimate career choice. That tired old argument is trotted out anytime someone dares to mutter about decriminalizing the industry: “Oh, horrors, your child could end up working as a prostitute!”
Read the research. Prostitution doesn’t increase when it’s decriminalized, because it’s already so well-entrenched in every community that there’s no increase in demand just because it’s now legal. All the men who buy sex are already buying it.
Nor is the growth of sex tourism much of a concern in Canada. Sex workers here are no more likely than any other Canadian to work for the pathetic, exploitive wages that sex workers earn in countries like Thailand.
And even if all that weren’t so, surely we don’t want to support laws that maintain an ugly and dangerous work environment just so our own daughters won’t be tempted into that line of work.
Every woman who works in the industry is somebody’s daughter. We owe it to all of them to fix this mess we’ve made.

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