- Give/Get Help
- Shelter Movement
- Global Resistance
- About Us
Rejecting the Decriminalization of Prostitution in Canada
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
The Situation in Canada
Prostitution itself - that is, having sex for money - is not illegal in Canada. However, many activities surrounding prostitution are illegal, and these include:
1) Brothel activities: owning or managing a brothel, working or being found in a brothel, and taking or offering to take somebody to a brothel.
2) Pimping, trafficking people into prostitution, and living off the avails of prostitution.
3) Soliciting or communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution.
This may seem strange – like allowing hairstyling and hairstylists, but disallowing salons, the owning and operating of salons, driving a hairstylist to work, and making appointments with your barber. But the laws were designed with gender neutrality in mind; to ensure that it was not only women being punished for prostitution. Nevertheless, some people think these laws have failed and are proposing an alternative.
Members of the Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), a prostitutes’ rights group based in Toronto, with the help of a group law students and Professor Alan Young out of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, have launched a constitutional challenge against these laws. Their central claim is that current laws place prostitutes in greater danger of physical violence, thus violating their right to liberty and security as guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Valerie Scott, executive director of the SPOC, claims that due to the laws in place since December 1st 1985, “there have been between 400 and 500 sex workers either confirmed murdered or missing in Canada,” and that this is because prostitutes “are forced to work alone — not in pairs, not in threes, alone — so no one knows what kind of car they’re getting into … they are alone with someone and no one knows where they are. As a result of this, the bodies are surfacing.” (CBC News)
A History of Prostitutes’ Rights
The prostitutes’ rights movement and “sex-worker feminism” today mostly advocates the decriminalization of prostitution. This means, simply, the removal of all laws and regulations surrounding prostitution. Prostitution is viewed as a choice, and the act of commercial sex itself is viewed as a transaction between consenting adults. The prostitute is said to be providing a necessary service or skill, making prostitution a type of work like any other. The discourse of decriminalization is often aimed at making prostitution seem as if it has always existed, or that it is “natural”. For example, the SPOC website claims “no government or religion in history, including the most repressive, (i.e. those that have the death penalty for prostitution, Iran, Afghanistan, etc.) have ever been able to eradicate our noble profession, for the simple reasons that money and sex are so much more powerful than governments and/or religions” (SPOC website) Decriminalization lets prostitution regulate itself, as opposed to legalization, which would require licensing or registration, health check-ups, special business taxes, and confinement to state-restricted areas. Decriminalization is also very business oriented, and as Valerie Scott once stated in an interview, “(the SPOC ) is primarily business people, and I find, while I love activists and academics, it is business people who tend to really get things done in this country” (The Flirt Show).
Prostitute activism has not always looked like this. Early prostitutes’ rights movements did not celebrate their “noble profession”, but saw it as arising from women’s economic and social subordination. Organizations established in the late 1970’s such as the English Collective of Prostitutes, wanted prostitution eventually abolished, saying, “we don’t want it for ourselves and our daughters” and “it’s not what most women who have done it, or who have never done it, want to do” (Jeffreys, 67). These organizations were also more focused on fighting police discrimination, for example, in Lyons, France, 1975, prostitutes occupied a church to protest their treatment by police (Jeffreys, 67).
But something changed, and the ideas of groups such as Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), and today’s SPOC gained prominence. In the late 1980’s COYOTE’s Valerie Jenness, also a professor of criminology and sociology, became a major force in contending that prostitution was like any other service work, and that it should be decriminalized. At that time, Valerie Scott was the executive director of the Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes (CORP), and the group received a lot of media attention.
What is Wrong With Decriminalization?
Seeing prostitution as any other type of work seems to make sense at first, and the SPOC makes a strong case that the current laws harm prostitutes. Despite this, why is decriminalization a bad idea for Canada?
Prostitutes’ rights groups such as the SPOC have an erroneous view of what prostitution actually is, and fail to see that empirical evidence and realistic theoretical considerations indicate decriminalization will not make life better for prostitutes or women in general. Specifically, the view of prostitution as a choice made by women is false, and this can be demonstrated by examining women’s status in society, histories of sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, and human trafficking. Furthermore, decriminalization forgets that violence is intrinsic to prostitution, and ignores public health concerns. Myths about the “skills and services” offered by prostitutes, and the supposed safety of indoor prostitution will be exposed. Even the theoretical basis for decriminalization is flawed, and this can be shown by deconstructing erroneous views of human nature and the inevitability of prostitution, as well as by considering the issues of social stigma and normalization. Next, we will examine the results of decriminalization policies in New South Wales and New Zealand, and finally we will be set to propose an alternative: laws that see prostitution for what it really is – the right of men to rent women’s sexual body parts as the fundamental expression of social and economic inequality between men and women.
The position taken here is most often referred to by sex-worker feminists and liberal feminists as “radical feminism”, but there is actually nothing radical about this approach, and there is surely no effort to contain the argument within the canons of radical feminism. Instead, this is an attempt to avoid some of those generalizations of radical feminism that see prostitution as “female sexual slavery” (Barry, 1984). To be honest with ourselves, slavery is one thing, and prostitution quite another.
Prostitution is not a choice
Those who advocate decriminalization are quick to respond to this statement. They may say prostitutes enter into their “profession” freely, and that by saying “it is not a choice” it is I who debases them, objectifies them, and denies them agency in their lives. This type of rhetoric is used in sex-worker feminism to hide the evidence that indicates, indeed, that prostituted women do not have so much choice in their lives. Instead of seeing prostitutes as making the choice to be prostitutes – as if all other opportunities were available – we should see entrance into prostitution as a decision made in a context of economic and social depravity, sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, and human trafficking.
The simple facts of women’s economic and social subordination to men in Canada are too often forgotten; in the case of the SPOC, perhaps purposely forgotten to advance their cause. There is ample research showing that although more women are working today, working wives are often still expected to do the housework (Hochschild 2002), and are subject to various forms of subtle sex discrimination (Benokraitis 1997). As well, Canadian women who work full time for an entire year earn only 73% of what similarly employed men can make (Krahn; Lowe, 190). Then, if we take wage discrimination and the gender-segregated structure of the labour market into account, it becomes obvious – women have fewer choices than men. Add onto this a history of abuse, or the experience of being trafficked, and these choices diminish even further.
Although sex-work feminism rejects any analysis that portrays prostitutes as victims, there is extensive evidence showing that prostitutes were often sexually, physically, or emotionally abused as children. Unless sex-work feminists want to introduce an element of willing participation in these abuses, we should see these prostitutes as victims of people and events that profoundly affected their decision to go into prostitution.
A study of 100 prostitutes in Vancouver, British Columbia, conducted in 2003 showed that 84% were sexually abused as a child (Farley et al 2003, 43). Another study of 45 ex-prostitutes in Calgary, Alberta, had similar results – 73% were sexually abused in their childhood, and 27% of this sample experienced intercourse during sexual abuse (Bagley, 446). Such disparaging statistics show up across the world - across nine countries an average of 63% of prostitutes were sexually abused as children, with 57% of prostitutes in the United States reporting sexual abuse as a child, 48% in Germany, 66% in South Africa, 67% in Columbia, 47% in Thailand, 84 % in Zambia, and 54% in Mexico (Farley et al 2003, 43). Of 123 survivors of prostitution at the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Portland (Oregon, U.S.A), 85% reported a history of incest (Farley; Kelly, 44). These studies also show that sexual abuses were inflicted by an average of 4 perpetrators (Farley et al 2003, 43). It is significant for our purposes to point out that incidences of childhood sexual abuse for prostitutes in Canada are quite high.
Many prostitutes were also physically abused as children. 73% of prostitutes in the Vancouver study reported being hit or beaten by a caregiver until they were injured or bruised (Farley et al 2003, 43). In the Calgary study 62% reported being physically abused (Bagley, 446). In the Portland study, 90% reported the same (Farley; Kelly, 44). Across the nine countries mentioned, the average rate of physical abuse as children is 59% (Farley et al 2003, 43). In a study conducted in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legalized, 40% of the prostitutes reported being physically or sexually abused in childhood (Farley et al 1998, 420). Again, the rates for Canada are high compared to rates across the world.
Rates of verbal abuse, parents with drinking problems, past homelessness, and other problems are also high for prostitutes across the world. In the Calgary study, 67% reported emotional abuse, 44% had parents with a drinking problem, 80% left home by the age of 16, and 15.5% were in foster care or group homes (Bagley, 446). In the Vancouver study, 86% reported a history of homelessness or current homelessness (Farley et al 2003, 43).
It should be clear that these abuses are a significant factor in guiding women’s decision to enter prostitution, and I challenge any sex-worker feminist to find similar rates of such abuse in any other “profession”. Decriminalization will sanction these abused women’s entrance into the sex trade. What good is that?
Furthermore, when women are trafficked into Canada to be prostitutes their decisions are certainly constrained. Sex-worker feminists deny this, arguing that real feminists “need to listen to third world women, including sex workers and trafficking victims and act in support of their expressed interests” (Sullivan 2003, 75). Sex-worker feminists also claim that the radical feminist anti-trafficking campaign is racist and neo-colonialist (Sullivan 2003, 75). The evidence simply does not support these claims. A Canadian study that included interviews of 20 trafficked women, 15 agency personnel, and 15 key informants concluded that the conditions of recruitment, migration, and employment were deplorable, and characterized by exploitation, strict control, deceit, physical danger, and eventually hopeless entrapment in the sex industry (McDonald et al, 64-65). Moreover, the study asserts “poor economic and political conditions in the women’s home countries were cited by the (interviewees) as being the major reasons for migrating” (McDonald et al, 65).
Many women who come to Canada to work in the sex trade go through non-official agents who arrange travel documents, transportation, and jobs on arrival. Most of these women pay steep fees of $15,000 to $45,000 for this service – which has to be repaid in prostitution before they can earn any of their own money (Sudthibhasilp, 2002)
Interestingly, in a study of trafficked Russian women, Kleimenov and Shamkov reported that “a woman who chooses to go abroad to work in show business realizes the potential danger of such a decision. She takes the risk because she hopes she will either have control of the situation or be lucky” [emphasis added] (Kleimenov; Shamkov, 40). Women who are trafficked into Canada seem to have neither of these.
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women reported that in one Toronto area sex-slave ring bust, about twelve 16-30 year-old Asian girls and women were being trafficked into Canada each week on visitor’s permits and sold into brothels where they were forced into $40,000 debt bondage (Hughes et al, 1999). In another instance, strip clubs located in Toronto and Montreal were implicated in hiring women as foreign exotic dancers, but then putting them into prostitution, coercing them into having abortions when pregnant, taking their passports, and holding them in seclusion when they were not performing (Hughes et al, 1999). In “New Directions in Research on Prostitution”, Ronald Weitzer claims that studies of sex trafficking are full of “inflated figures and anecdotal horror stories” designed to incite moral panic about the possibilities of an existing sex-slave trade (Weitzer 2005, 229). But to make this claim it would be necessary to give evidence that suggests women have good, or at least neutral, experiences being trafficked into prostitution, and so far there is no evidence for this. In any case, it is certainly unclear how, in the cases and studies above, these women could have made the choice to be in prostitution. In situations where the women were deceived into entering prostitution we cannot even say that they made a conscious decision.
We should also consider Melissa Farley’s study of prostitutes in nine countries, which confirmed that 89% of her respondents (699 of 854 respondents) wanted to get out of prostitution (Farley 2003, 51). And out of the 100 Canadian women Farley interviewed, 89 of them wanted to leave prostitution (Farley 2003, 51).
Therefore, to say that prostitution is a choice is incorrect since it does not consider the economic subordination of women in Canada (and around the world), prostitutes’ histories of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, and the issue of trafficked women. Kathleen Barry finds it odd that we condemn child pornography and child prostitution, while prostitution has become “a form of work and an expression of sex for women” (Barry 2003, 451). None of these are choices, and prostitution cannot be called a “choice” if the women with the fewest choices are the ones most often found doing it. The SPOC does not get this. While Valerie Scott was executive director of the Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes (CORP), she stated, along with Ryan Hotchkiss and Peggy Miller, that “most of us end up taking jobs where there are certain compromises made”, and “we don’t think any woman should be forced to work as a prostitute any more than any woman should be forced to work in a factory or forced to be a lawyer or doctor, for that matter” (V. Scott et al, 207). But there is a difference between the course of life that takes me to medical school and the one that takes me into prostitution. One is often filled with sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect, and the other usually is not.
Violence is intrinsic to prostitution today
The SPOC believes that decriminalization will lessen the violence committed against prostitutes, and sex-worker feminists generally feel the same way. The argument goes that women will be able to work together, indoors; will be able to hire security personnel and others (who would otherwise be susceptible to the procuring law) to make their workplace safer. As well, prostitutes will be more likely to report offences committed against them to the police, because they will no longer fear discrimination or charges.
First, there is no evidence to show that indoor prostitution is any safer than outdoor prostitution, and second, violence is intrinsic to prostitution, and decriminalization cannot change this.
Those who claim indoor prostitution is safer have some statistics to back their claim, for instance, in a Canadian study of street prostitutes vs. escorts it was found that: 37% of the street prostitutes had been robbed compared to 9% of the indoor prostitutes, 37% of the street prostitutes were sexually assaulted compared to 9% of the indoor prostitutes, and 39% of the street prostitutes were beaten, compared to 14% of the indoor prostitutes (Weitzer 2005, 216) Similarly, in a British study of street prostitutes and indoor prostitutes it was found that 47% of the street prostitutes were slapped, punched, or kicked compared to 14% of indoor prostitutes, and 22% of the street prostitutes were raped compared to 2% of indoor prostitutes (Weitzer 2005, 216).
There are two problems with making an argument for decriminalization based on these statistics: first, there is an assumption that decriminalizing prostitution leads street prostitutes indoors – for example, in “Prostitution: A Critical Analysis of Three Policy Approaches”, Frances Shaver asserts that “there will be much less street prostitution once the bawdy house provisions are repealed” (Shaver, 500). But no research has been able to demonstrate this. In places where prostitution has been legalized, such as the state of Victoria in Australia, and the Netherlands, illegal street prostitution expanded. In New South Wales, Australia, where prostitution is decriminalized, certain areas, including the lower class suburb of Islington, have had to deal with a “plague of prostitution in the street” (Scott 2004, 450). The simple fact is this: if prostitution is decriminalized in Canada, street prostitutes will not have to worry about getting harassed by the police, so they will be out there. Some prostitutes also prefer the streets. They believe that brothels restrict their freedom to choose which men they will accept, or do not want to give up their wages to brothel employees (Hoigard; Finstad, 593). Remember, in a brothel it is possible that a prostitute does not only have sex to pay herself, but also to pay other brothel employees.
Second, although statistics on indoor prostitution show less violence against indoor prostitutes, it is still more violence than most people would be willing to accept at their workplace. It is unlikely that we would find 2% to 9% of hairstylists were raped or sexually assaulted at work, or that 14% of computer technicians were beaten on the job. But when the information is framed the way it usually is, we tend to accept it.
Sex-worker feminists, while aware of the dangers faced by prostitutes, deny that violence is somehow intrinsic to the sex trade. Weitzer believes that sweeping claims like this are not supported by empirical studies because “customers vary demographically, demographically, attitudinally, and behaviourally” (Weitzer 2005, 212). He points to a major study of more than 2300 arrested customers which showed that most of the men rejected rape myths and other rationalizations for violence against women; therefore, “there is no reason to believe that most customers are violent” (Weitzer 2005, 213). He also claims that prostitutes’ self-conceptions are not consistent with the claim that violence is intrinsic to prostitution, rather, prostitutes do it “out of satisfaction with the control it gives them over their sexual interactions” (Weitzer 2005, 213).
First, studying prostitutes’ self-conceptions is probably not the best way to determine whether violence is intrinsic to prostitution. Second, it is for sure that most customers are not violent. But why not ask prostitutes about their experiences?
73% Of prostitutes in the nine countries studied by Melissa Farley reported being assaulted in prostitution, and 57% reported being raped (Farley 2003, 43). In her Canadian sample, 91% reported being physically assaulted in prostitution, 76% reported being raped, and 67% percent of those raped reported being raped more than five times (Farley 2003, 43). In the Portland study, 70% of the women reported being raped in prostitution, 65% reported physical assaults by customers, and 66% reported being assaulted by their pimp (Farley; Kelly, 16). In a study conducted in the Netherlands in the mid-nineties, 60% of the prostitutes suffered physical assaults, and 40% reported “sexual violence” (Farley; Kelly, 16). In a study of San Francisco massage parlours, 62% of Asian women reported being assaulted by customers (Farley 2004, 1094).
Sex-worker feminists have an easier time showing that johns can be good people. In Good Girls / Bad Girls: Feminists and Sex Trade Workers Face to Face, current executive director of the SPOC, Valerie Scott, along with Peggy Miller, and Ryan Hotchkiss are very sympathetic towards johns, saying “you want … to be sensitive to his needs as a person. He’s a person. He’s not a fucking animal – he’s a person. He may just need to be held, he may just need you to act out some fantasy” (V. Scott et al, 209). In fact, they claim to be “the only feminists around” because they are the only ones listening to men: “we think whores are more conscious of feminism from a healthy perspective than most other feminists. The reason is that we’re constantly interacting with men and conscious of where they’re coming from, so in that sense we’re really hearing them” (V. Scott et al, 210). In response, Sheila Jeffreys sharply chides, “liberation ideologies do not usually arise from listening intently to the oppressor” (Jeffreys, 83). Whether prostitution is conducted indoors or out, it makes no difference. The evidence indicates that violence is intrinsic to prostitution today.
Prostitution is a public health concern
The decriminalization of prostitution is also a public health concern. Sex-worker feminists resent this assertion, and point out that prostitutes are not responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. They are partially correct, since most of the evidence indicates prostitutes are only highly diseased in places where there are overall high rates of disease and low rates of condom usage. But there are other considerations: how violence and coercion affect prostitutes’ health, street prostitution, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the sheer number of johns that prostitutes have sex with.
In Farley and Kelly’s “Prostitution: A Critical Review of the Medical and Social Sciences Literature”, they point out that “after two decades of research on HIV, the World Health Organization noted that women’s primary risk factor for HIV is violence” (Farley; Kelly, 36). And we have already seen the evidence for how many prostitutes are raped or sexually assaulted. As well, some johns pressure women into unsafe sex or physically assault them when they do not get their way. Farley points out that extremely risky sex acts can always be purchased. 73% of prostitutes in a U.S. study reported that men offered to pay more for sex without a condom, and most men expected oral sex without a condom (Farley 2004, 1110).
Much of the evidence suggests many street prostitutes are addicted to drugs or alcohol and are less likely to use condoms. And since we have already concluded that street prostitutes will not disappear with decriminalization, we can cite a study of over 600 street prostitutes in Los Angeles County – 47% of them reported one or more sexually transmitted infection in the last six months (McKeganey; Barnard, 577). Sex-worker feminists often overlook post-traumatic stress disorder as a valid health concern. Among prostitutes in the nine countries studied by Melissa Farley, 68% had post-traumatic stress disorder (Farley 2003, 47). 74% of Canadian prostitutes were diagnosed with PTSD (Farley 2003, 47).
In addition, prostitutes have sex with so many men that condom failure must eventually occur. In the Calgary sample of prostitutes, 20% reported that they had over 100 men a week, 67% reported that they had between 50 and 99 men a week, 11% reported 25-49 men a week, and 2% reported 8 to 24 men a week (Bagley, 448). It is no wonder then that studies show up to 49% of prostitutes and 16% of johns have had a condom break during commercial sex (McKeganey; Barnard, 582).
Despite sex-worker feminists’ resentment of the assertion, decriminalized prostitution is a public health concern.
Prostitution is not a service, a skill, or a type of work like any other
Sex-worker feminists claim that prostitution is “sex work” in the sense that a woman is not selling herself, or renting her sexual parts, but is providing a service that involves special skill. For example, COYOTE’s leaders, St. James and Alexander, stated that “in reality, a prostitute is being paid for her time and skill”, and there is no real distinction between an hour of sex work and an hour of typing, acting, or any other type of work (Jenness, 405).
However, this is only true if they can demonstrate that a unique skill or service is fundamental to prostitution. They have some difficulty doing this. As Jeffrey’s incisively retorts, “the basic act that the average john wants to perform in her body … can be performed without the exercise of any special skills on her part”, and “just having an orifice” does not constitute a skill (Jeffreys, 167).
But perhaps a better way to argue that prostitution involves no special service or skill is to look at how prostitutes advertise. After all, if it is a service we should expect it to be advertised as such, and if it involves skill, we should expect these skills to be highlighted.
Mention of “skill”/ “service”
I took a 2007 issue of NOW Magazine, a Toronto weekly, and analyzed 251 escort advertisements and 122 erotic massage advertisements in the classifieds. Among the words or terms that were taken to indicate “service” or “skill” were adverbs that described the quality of sex, such as “amazing”, “extraordinary” “great”, “best” and others (see Appendix A). Allowing “best” is generous, because the word could also indicate that the sex provided is only better than what the competition has to offer. Words or terms that were discounted included adjectives such as “hot”, “gorgeous”, “young”, “18 (years old)”, “horny”, “classy and clean”, and others (see Appendix A), since none of these are skills. The results clearly demonstrate that advertising in prostitution has little to do with selling a skill or service.
Being the right race was more important than having the rights skills. 50% of the escort ads and 57% of the massage ads mentioned race. Age was also important, as well as which sex acts the prostitute was willing to perform, for example, “greek” (anal) and oral. Descriptions of the women (i.e.: “hot”, “petite”, “busty”, “long legs and spectacular ass”, “sex starved student”) were common, as were descriptions of women’s genitalia (i.e.: “hairy pussy”, shaven”, “tight”). The amount of time a prostitute was willing to spend with a john was rarely mentioned, and none of the ads mentioned experience, which we would expect to be an indicator of skill.
Those advertisements that did sell a service or skill, did so by saying their prostitutes were “orally gifted”, or could give an “extraordinary release”, etc. But by far, this study confirms the view of radical feminists – that prostitution does not sell a “service”, “skill”, or “time”. It rents out bodies, legs, breasts, vaginas, and asses, to men.
Sex-worker feminists’ theories are wrong
The theoretical basis for decriminalization is flawed, and this can be shown by deconstructing erroneous views of human nature and the inevitability of prostitution, as well as by considering the issues of social stigma and normalization.
Sex-worker feminists and those who advocate decriminalization often assert that we can never abolish prostitution because it is somehow “natural” and it is “the oldest profession,” etc. These feminists also tend to reassure us that prostitution does not have to be oppressive. For example, in Prostitution and the Case for Decriminalization, Laurie Shrage explains, “I have examined institutionalized and commodified exchanges of sexual services between women providers and their male customers in many different social contexts” and “I conclude that there are (or have been) places and times where exchanges of sexual services between men and women are (or were) relatively free of gender and class domination” (Shrage 2006, 240). But to find her evidence, we have to turn to an article she published much earlier, and it becomes clear that her examples are particularly weak, and sometimes peculiar:
1) A class of temple prostitutes in Babylon; all women, who had sex for, and on behalf of, gods and goddesses (Shrage 1989, 349).
2) Prostitutes in 15th century France who were “on good terms with priests and men of the law”, and therefore, “it was not too difficult for them to find a position as servant or wife”. In fact, “by the age of thirty, most prostitutes had a real chance of becoming reintegrated into society” [emphasis added] (Shrage 1989, 350).
3) The Etoro of New Guinea. Male Etoro children give oral sex to adult Etoro men, often their relatives. Their belief is that boys need to swallow semen to become men, “much like we believe that young infants need their mother’s milk, or some equivalent, to be properly nurtured” [emphasis added] (Shrage 1989, 350).
In the first example, “temple prostitution”, is often regarded as the origin of prostitution. Some ancient Babylonian societies actually thought of the gods and goddesses as dwelling in the temple, not as symbolically represented there (Lerner, 238). Regardless, all the prostitutes are women, so there can be no claim for gender equality here. In the second example, we can be sure that coming out of prostitution to become either a “servant or wife” is not an indicator of gender equality. And to say that prostitutes could be “reintegrated into society” naturally means they were not integrated to begin with. In the final and strangest example, let us be clear: we do not believe that “young infants need their mother’s milk, or some equivalent, to be properly nurtured”. We know it. And, if by “some equivalent”, she means baby formula, food, juice, water, or any other kind of sustenance – then we know babies need this. It is not a matter of belief. Shrage calls this Etoro practice “penis-feeding” and considers it an aspect of child-rearing – not sex; to call it sex, she says, would be ethnocentric (Shrage 1989, 351). If that is the case, then there is no reason why this should be considered, as she asserts it should be, a “sexual service”. In fact, both the first and third examples do not seem to refer to prostitution – commercial sex. Temple rituals and “child-rearing” techniques do not count.
Instead, Gerda Lerner argues that the beginnings of prostitution coincide with the beginnings of slavery: As slavery became an established institution, particularly through military conquests in the third millennium B.C., slave owners rented out their female slaves as prostitutes, and some masters set up commercial brothels staffed by slaves (Lerner, 247).
It is strange that so many academics still make the mistake of thinking prostitution is the oldest profession. The fallacy is obvious, because we must then conclude that it was the first profession - before agriculture, hunting, and gathering. Unless these things came before prostitution, a prostitute in a state of nature would have nothing to gain from selling her sexual services; men would have nothing to pay her with. No food, no shelter -nothing.
Another simple consideration: if there is any place or culture in history that did not have prostitution, then an argument for its “naturalness” can be undone (although it may be easier to send sex-worker feminists to a Mennonite, Hutterite, or Amish community today, and let them search for evidence of prostitution).
Albert Hurtado’s study (1996) shows us that prostitution among Natives before the colonization of North America was essentially non-existent. For example, before the Spaniards arrived, there was no prostitution in California. However, missionary reports indicate that it may have been started when four Spanish soldiers raped two Native women at the Al Corral rancherio, and tried to pay them off with some ribbon and a few tortillas (Hurtado, 59). The realization amongst Native women that selling sex could buy food and gifts became significant as Native encounters with Europeans deteriorated into starvation, war, and slavery.
Hurtado also describes the confusion about sex caused by the meeting of Plains Natives and white colonists. Some Plains Native women showed hospitality by sleeping with the new arrivals, and practiced ritual intercourse for the buffalo (Hurtado, 60). But Europeans interpreted Native sexual culture the only way they could - in a way that led them to believe sex could be purchased. And again, as the situation deteriorated, Native women began to prostitute themselves. Hurtado even considers the possibility that adopting prostitution “was an Indian attempt to reduce rapes and get control over those encounters” (Hurtado, 59). In short, prostitution was introduced to these Native cultures by Europeans.
Accounts of the Native societies in James Axtell’s The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes, showed that many tribes in the East were free-spirited when it came to sex. Sex before marriage was common, as were trial marriages, infidelity, and polygamy. There was simply no market for sex. Kissing was largely unknown (Axtell, 71), never mind prostitution.
Those who believe prostitution is “natural”; is the “oldest profession”, or advocate decriminalization under the assumption that it has always existed and can never be eradicated, have to contend with this fact: that it has not always existed, and therefore does not always have to exist. We should hope that Kathleen Barry is wrong in saying that to imagine a world without prostitution “is like imagining a world without slavery in the U.S. in the 1820’s” (Barry 1995, 316).
The SPOC and other sex-worker feminists also believe that decriminalization will reduce the social stigma and contempt of prostitutes. They are careful to frame the issue as one about “prostitutes” and not “prostitution” in general. This way, when a radical feminist argues against them, they can respond by claiming it is an attack against prostitutes; in fact, in most cases, and certainly in this one, it is a condemnation of prostitution as an institution.
Historically, there are very few cases where prostitution is not viewed negatively, and in places where prostitution has been legalized or decriminalized (we will examine these in detail later - see page 22), there is much to suggest that the stigma remains, or even worsens.
We should also be concerned that decriminalized brothels, exotic massage parlours, and sex spas will send the message that prostitution is here to stay – and based on what we have just discussed, this is definitely not the message we should be getting. Another message we are sure to get from decriminalization is that this is something women do – that is, unless anyone is willing to argue that there are as many male prostitutes for women as there are women for men. Even Laurie Shrage, who makes a case for decriminalization, agrees that stereotyping and job ghettoizing “are legitimate fears, and supporters of decriminalization have to consider how such outcomes might be avoided” (Shrage 2006, 245). She herself makes no such effort; in fact, no sex-worker feminist can demonstrate how the normalization of prostitution will benefit all women.
A question we can ask ourselves, to find out how we really feel about prostitution as a legitimate profession, is “would I want my daughter to be a prostitute?” Laurie Shrage, who has a young daughter, struggles with this question, but concludes, “although I would prefer my daughter to be a mathematician, pianist, or labour organizer, were she to seek employment in the sex trade, I would still want the best for her”, and “her choice would be less heartbreaking to me if the work were legal, safe, reasonably well paid, and moderately respectable” (Shrage 2006, 246). This is certainly not how I would answer the question, having determined thus far that: 1) It is most often not a “choice”, per se; 2) it is not safe whether legalized, decriminalized, or criminalized, 3) it is not respectable whether legalized, decriminalized, or criminalized, and 4) prostitutes do not want to be prostitutes.
Decriminalization has been ineffective thus far
Last, to show how decriminalizing prostitution is bad for Canada, it is useful to examine the effects of decriminalization in other places. The SPOC is fond of pointing us towards the great successes of decriminalization in New Zealand and New South Wales, Australia. But these experiments are just beginning, and the results so far are not positive.
In 1995, the state government of New South Wales, Australia, decriminalized aspects of prostitution with the Disorderly Houses Amendment Act (Scott 2003, 287). This amendment decriminalized brothel prostitution, but gave local councils the right to approve brothel locations and supervise their activity. Both brothel and public prostitution are decriminalized, as long as they are away from churches, schools, hospitals, places frequented by children, and do not interfere with the amenity of the neighborhood (Sullivan 1997, 217).
There are many problems so far. By some estimates, the number of brothels in Sydney has grown by 200 - 300% (Scott 2003, 288). And Yellow Pages pages devoted to escort agencies and brothels has grown from 2 or 3 pages to beyond 24 (BBC News). While some sex-worker feminists might applaud this growth, they should also be aware that most brothels have been monopolized by consortiums of Sydney’s prominent accountants, lawyers, and restaurateurs, who have lobbied the N.S.W government to crack down on prostitution that threatens their investments, such as illegal street prostitution and cottage operations (Scott 2000, 288). As a result, street prostitutes are either hiding out in more dangerous and inaccessible areas or giving up their autonomy to work in a brothel. Meanwhile, brothel managers are more strictly enforcing certain work practices and health standards - something most sex-worker feminists would find invasive and restrictive (Scott 2003, 288). Places like the city of Newcastle and the suburb of Islington have had to deal with the immense growth of illegal brothel and street prostitution, prompting one prostitute to write to Newcastle’s city council, saying “if prostitution is legalized, why are you making it so hard for us to operate and earn a living?” (Scott 2004, 451). There are also many reports that activist local councils are using delaying tactics and other strategies to oppose the opening of brothels, and this has led N.S.W Premier, Morris Iemma, to announce that laws dealing with brothels may have to be changed in a way that allows councils to shut down brothels more easily (ABC News).
In May 2003, prostitution was decriminalized in New Zealand by a one vote majority in Parliament (Farley 2004, 1087). Some of the same problems as N.S.W are sure to surface. For example, the law would not have passed without a last-minute amendment that gave local councils control over where prostitution could happen (Farley 2004, 1092). This has caused a mess, with brothels and other operations being zoned into poorer neighborhoods, and conversely, pimps renting houses in suburban areas (Farley 2004, 1092). As usual, the explosion of prostitution operations has exceeded the councils’ ability to regulate.
Any evidence that the decriminalization of prostitution in N.S.W or New Zealand has lessened violence against prostitutes has yet to be seen. Nevertheless, it is clear that the SPOC and sex-worker feminists have not considered the host of other problems that come with decriminalization; therefore, we should search for other solutions.
An Alternative Approach for Canada?
Understanding the nature of prostitution, and knowing that arguments for decriminalization are flawed in so many ways, leads us to an alternative that cuts to reality – that the only way to end the violence in prostitution and the violence that is prostitution, is to do away with prostitution.
I understand that, for the time being, we cannot completely eradicate the sex trade, but there are ways to lessen the harm without decriminalization and normalization. On January 1st, 1999, in recognition that prostitution is essentially a form of violence against women, Sweden passed a law that decriminalizes the selling of sex, but criminalizes the buyer (Svanstrom, 241). The law also provides for extensive social services designed at getting women out of prostitution, and law enforcement training and awareness programs. The number of prostitutes in Sweden has reduced significantly, along with the number of women trafficked into Sweden. Police in Stockholm estimate that the purchase of sex in the city has dropped 90%, and that most of the women who remain on the street have substance abuse problems (National Board, 23). Social Services teams in Goteberg estimate that the number of prostitutes on the streets has dropped by two thirds, and in Norrkoping, all signs of street prostitution have disappeared (National Board, 24-25). Admittedly, the amount of hidden prostitution may be rising, but statistics on this are difficult to obtain. To target indoor prostitution, Swedish authorities rely on the vigilance of law enforcers and the extensiveness of outreach and social service programs for prostitutes.
The Swedish law is modeled after various projects undertaken in Sweden in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The Malmo project, for example, gave prostitutes economic aid, assistance in finding housing, jobs, medical assistance, counseling and support, and protection from pimps (Barry 1995, 248). It was a great success, and over the course of four years, 72.5% of prostitutes in Malmo had quit, and of those who did not, many were drug dependent (Barry 1995, 249). From another perspective, in 1974 there were approximately 300 prostitutes in Malmo, and by 1981, there were only 60 known prostitutes left (Hoigard; Finstad, 607).
It is this type of action we should consider.
Sex-worker feminists and the SPOC have an erroneous view of what prostitution actually is, and fail to see that empirical evidence and realistic theoretical considerations indicate decriminalization will not make life better for prostitutes or women in general. Prostitution is clearly not just a choice, but a decision made in a context of poverty, sexual and physical abuse, neglect, and human trafficking. Decriminalization forgets that violence is intrinsic to prostitution, and ignores public health concerns. Furthermore, indoor prostitution is no better than street prostitution, and prostitution is not a special skill or service. The theoretical basis for decriminalization is flawed, and experiments in decriminalization have not demonstrated that decriminalization is the best policy alternative. A better policy alternative sees prostitution for what it really is - the right of men to rent women’s sexual body parts as the fundamental expression of social and economic inequality between men and women.
Appendix with primary research findings available on request.
ABC News. “N.S.W brothel laws under review”. Jan 21, 2007. Available: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/01/21/1830717.htm
Axtell, James (Ed.) The Indian Peoples of Eastern America: A Documentary History of the Sexes. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Bagley, Christopher. “Adolescent prostitution in Canada and the Philippines”.International Social Work. 42: 4. 1999. 445-454.
Barry, Kathleen. Female Sexual Slavery. New York: New York University Press, 1984.
Barry, Kathleen. “Female sexual slavery: the problem, policies, and cause for feminist action”. Prostitution. Matthews, Roger; O’Neill, Maggie (Eds.) Burlington, VT: Ashgate/Dartmouth, 2003.
Barry, Kathleen. The Prostitution of Sexuality. New York and London: New York University Press, 1995.
BBC News. “Prostitutes gear up for Olympic sex”. Feb 1, 2000. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/627012.stm
Benokraitis, Nijole V. “How subtle sex discrimination works”. Subtle Sexism: Current Practices and Prospects for Change. Benokraitis, Nijole V. (Ed.) Sage Publications, 1997.
Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. Prostitution in Canada. March, 1984.
CBC News. “Sex trade workers challenge criminal code”. Mar 21, 2007. Available: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2007/03/21/sexworkers-challenge.html
Flirt Show – Show 32. “Prostitution: should it be legal in Canada?” Canoe Network. On-line interview. Nov 3, 2004.
Farley, Melissa. “Bad for the body, bad for the heart: prostitution harms women even if legalized or decriminalized”. Violence Against Women. 10: 10. Oct, 2004. 1087-1125.
Farley, Melissa; Baral, Isin; Kiremire, Merab; Sezgin, Ufuk. “Prostitution in five countries: violence and post-traumatic stress disorder. Feminism and Psychology. 8: 4. 1998. 405-426.
Farley, Melissa; Cotton, Ann; Lynne, Jacqueline; Zumbeck, Sybille; Spiwak, Frida; Reyes, Maria, E; Alvarez, Dinorah; Sezgin, Ufuk. “Prostitution and trafficking in nine countries: an update on violence and post-traumatic stress disorder”. Journal of Trauma Practice. 2: 3/4 2003. 33-74.
Farley, Melissa; Kelly, Vanessa. “Prostitution: a critical review of the medical and social sciences literature”. Women and Criminal Justice. 11: 4. 2004. 29-64.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. The Second Shift. New York: Quill, 2002.
Hoigard, Cecille; Finstad, Liv. “The fight against prostitution”. Prostitution. Matthews, Roger; O’Neill, Maggie (Eds.) Burlington, VT: Ashgate/Dartmouth, 2003.
Hughes, Donna M; Sporcic, Laura Joy; Mendelsohn, Nadine Z, Chirgwin, Vanessa. “The Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation”. Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, 1999.
Jeffreys, Sheila. The Idea of Prostitution. North Melbourne: Spinifex, 1997.
Jenness, Valerie. “From sex as sin to sex as work: COYOTE and the reorganization of prostitution as a social problem”. Social Problems. 37: 3. Aug, 1990. 403-420.
Kleimenov; Mikhail, Shamkov, Stanislav. “Criminal Transportation of Persons: Trends and Recommendations”. Human Traffic and Transnational Crime: Eurasian and American Perspectives. Stoecker, Sally; Shelley, Louise (Eds.) Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005
Krahn, Harvey J; Lowe, Graham S. Work, Industry and Canadian Society, 4th Ed. Scarborough: Nelson, 2002.
Lerner, Gerda. “The origin of prostitution in ancient Mesopotamia” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 11:2. Winter, 1986. 236-254.
McDonald, Lynn; Moore, Brooke; Timoshkina, Natalya. Migrant Sex Workers From Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union: The Canadian Case. Centre for Applied Social Research, University of Toronto, 2000.
McKeganey, Neil; Barnard, Marina. “Prostitution and HIV/AIDS”. Prostitution. Matthews, Roger; O’Neill, Maggie (Eds.) Burlington, VT: Ashgate/Dartmouth, 2003.
National Board of Health and Welfare. “Prostitution in Sweden 2003”. Swedish government assignment. Socialstyrelsen, Oct, 2004.
NOW Magazine. Classifieds. Vol 26, No 41, Issue 1325. June 14-20, 2007.
Scott, John. “Prostitution and public health in New South Wales”. Culture, Health, and Sexuality. 5: 3. 2003. 277-293.
Scott, John. “Prostitution and public health in New South Wales: reply to Egger and Harcourt”. Culture, Health and Sexuality. 6: 5. Sept-Oct 2004. 447-453.
Scott, Valerie; Miller, Peggy; Hotchkiss, Ryan. “Realistic Feminists”. Good Girls / Bad Girls: Sex Trade Workers and Feminists Face to Face. Bell, Laurie (Ed.) Toronto: Ontario Public Interest Research Group, 1987.
Shaver, Frances M. “Prostitution: a critical analysis of three policy approaches”. Canadian Public Policy. 11: 3, 1985. 493-503.
Shrage, Laurie. “Prostitution and the case for decriminalization”. Prostitution and Pornography: Philosophical Debate About the Sex Industry. Spector, Jessica (Ed.) Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.
SPOC Website. “Decriminalization vs. legalization”. Available: http://www.spoc.ca/decrimlegal.html
Sutdhibhasilp, Noulmook. “Migrant Sex-workers in Canada”. Transnational Prostitution: Changing Global Patterns. Thorbek, Susanne; Pattanaik, Bandana (Eds.) London; New York: Zed Books, 2002.
Sullivan, Barbara. The Politics of Sex: Prostitution and Pornography in Australia Since 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Sullivan, Barbara. “Trafficking in women: feminism and new international law”.International Feminist Journal of Politics. 5: 1. Mar, 2003. 67-91.
Svanstrom, Yvonne. “Criminalizing the john – A Swedish gender model?” The Politics of Prostitution: Women’s Movements, Democratic States, and the Globalization of Sex Commerce. Outshoorn, Joyce (Ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Weitzer, Ronald. “New directions in research on prostitution”. Crime, Law and Social Change. 43, 2005. 211-235.