A debate
// Gurpreet Kambo & Celina Kurz


Gurpreet Kambo // News Editor

It is ironic that prostitution as a profession is one of the most criminalized. Compare the sex trade to others that are also outlawed – drug dealing or murder. With murder, there is clearly a victim, as the person being murdered is (generally) not a willing participant. Drug dealing is a little bit different, in that it can be said those partaking in the services are willing. However, drug dealing depends on the severe and debilitating addictions that one develops from many drugs – which often defer a person’s ability to make reasonable decisions for themselves to one of pursuing their “next fix” – also shows that dealing drugs is not a victimless crime.

What does this say about the sex trade, then? It is different in that the ones affected by the services of this profession aren’t being harmed. It has been argued that the victims are sex trade workers themselves – and this may be true; however, each singular act of providing sexual services for a “john” is one that both participants willingly involve themselves in, and is also one that gives the worker the ability to put food on their table. The victimization of the workers arises from the fact that one does not (to generalize) become a sex worker by choice, but due to one’s social circumstances. It also comes from the fact that their lower position on the social ladder allows johns to exploit them for sex.

What’s noticeable, then, with sex trade workers is that the one offering the “service” is not the one who is doing anything wrong, and yet outlawing it unfairly punishes them.

With prostitution being the “world’s oldest profession”, it is clear that regardless of police crackdowns, laws banning it, and so forth, it is not going anywhere. With this in mind, the concept of “harm reduction” proposes that it does more harm than good to make illegal certain things that may widely be considered morally objectionable. Prostitution and drugs are things that are often argued should be legalized, under the harm reduction banner. By making these practices legal they can be controlled and regulated by the government, ensuring that the violence and exploitation that regularly occur as part of these enterprises (and are surely sometimes just the cost of doing business), no longer happen.

What making them illegal does ensure is that the business of selling sex is regulated by the pimps, the real criminals in this venture. It ensures that, unlike other “legal” workers, they are not protected by any legislation that the government can pass to ensure their safety, their fair treatment, or their remuneration in the workplace.

Furthermore, to put forth what may be a radical notion, what’s to say that it is impossible a man or woman wouldn’t want to legitimately pursue this as an occupation? In this case, there is simply no reason why it should then be illegal, because in that case both the service provider and consumer are participating of their own volition – in that case, what business is it of anyone’s, let alone the government, to tell them not to?

For clarity’s sake, the simple act of exchanging sex for money is not illegal in Canada, though it is effectively illegal because any activities surrounding the act are. Regardless of whether the practice is morally objectionable, or whether or not a person wishes to partake in it, prostitution should be legalized. Its continued criminalization is a result of a large part of Canadian society considering it to be morally objectionable; however, morals are not what one should set laws by, and those that object should realize that its continued criminalization harms and victimizes more people than the practice itself.

Celina Kurz // Copy Editor

Who is a prostitute? The question is deceptively simple, but once you begin thinking about it, there is no one definitive answer. As soon as people begin to try to answer the question of whether or not prostitution should be criminalized, we put a label on what exactly a sex worker is – and the fact is that there are as many different kinds of sex workers as there are kinds of women.

The dominatrix who works out of her own house; the high-paid escort who drives a Mercedes; the often-overlooked male sex workers. However, one truly sad fact about our world is that a large number of the women involved in the sex trade – and street prostitution in particular – are there because they reached a point where there were no more options: illegal human trafficking fuels an unsettling portion of the industry, and poor socio-economic circumstances, abusive relationships, and drug addictions turn many women to prostitution.

The dangers of prostitution cannot be understated. According to a study cited in the a paper by the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit of the London Metropolitan University involving 240 women working in both indoor and street locations, “almost two thirds (63 per cent) reported violence from customers, and over a third (37 per cent) had been assaulted in the three months prior to the survey.”

Legalization, while it takes prostitution out of the darkness and can offer protection in a formal way via governmental organizations, sadly doesn’t often work in the way that we hope it does. If we look to the Netherlands, for example, we see a sex trade that has ballooned since it was decriminalized. This is coloured in an even uglier light when we note that their child prostitution rate rose an estimated 300 per cent from 1996 to 2001, according to one study. Of the estimated 15,000 children, mostly girls, involved in the Dutch sex trade, an estimated 5,000 are illegally trafficked from Nigeria.

Other countries which have legalized the sale of sex to various degrees, such as Germany and Australia, have also experienced increased demand for workers in the sex trade. This demand results in foreign workers, including illegally trafficked women and girls, being brought into the country.

Unfortunately, the alternative to this, criminalization, can put sex workers in danger as well, by pushing the practice behind closed doors. As stated above, many of the women involved in sex work can see no other options. To take one example, drug addiction is a key factor in many sex worker’s lives.

Statistics on prostitution are difficult to find due to the quasi-illegal nature of the work, but one survey, cited in a paper by the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit of the London Metropolitan University, showed that, of the population sample of street workers, 62 per cent stated that “their main reason for involvement in prostitution was to fund a drug habit, primarily heroin.” Due to the nature of drug addiction, criminalization of prostitution is virtually ineffective unless the necessary rehabilitative supports are also instated. If we don’t want women to turn to prostitution, we need to have safe alternatives where they can turn.

Many countries, when contemplating reform to prostitution law, have begun to look to Sweden as a working example. In Sweden, prostitution itself is not illegal, but purchasing sex is, and part of the punishment is that the offenders names are printed in newspapers. This is interesting in that it flips the shame solidly onto the shoulders of the client rather than the prostitute, and has been effective in reducing the sex trade in Sweden.

However, according to Patty Kelly, anthropologist and author of Lydia’s Open Door: Inside Mexico’s Most Modern Brothel, this hasn’t been entirely favourable to sex workers in Sweden: while the number of men looking to purchase sex has gone down, those that remain are more violent.

Any action that forces prostitution into secrecy makes the profession more dangerous for the women who are participating in it – and this includes laws that target sex buyers. One thing to remember is that, for those who do work in the sex trade, it is a job – they want clients, and they want to be paid well. Regardless of what the laws say, they will find ways to work around it. At the end of the day, we must admit that prostitution is alive in our culture, and choosing to criminalize it will only result in women and girls being at the brunt of assault.

What I am ultimately against is not legalization or criminalization, but rather, the attempt to make cut-and-dried solutions for an immensely complex problem that is not going to go away unless we make drastic efforts to change the framework of our society.

What we need are creative solutions that emerge from discussions that include input from women from all degrees of this trade. The ugly side of prostitution – the violence, the sexism, the virtual slavery – is not something that is going to go away simply by making it illegal, and evidence shows that decriminalization, too, does not do enough. There will still be women in poverty with no choices and no safe place to go home to, and therein lies the root of the problem. Both complete criminalization and complete decriminalization are band-aids on a gaping wound that requires complex care.

// Graphics by Tiaré Jung

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