At the beginning of October, the Ottawa police announced they would begin targetting johns — rather than prostitutes — with their new john letter campaign. In a move applauded by some feminists, the policy directs officers to send letters to the owners of cars spotted along hooker strolls.
The policy plays to people who say that sex workers should not be persecuted because they are poor, marginalized women being prayed upon — prayed upon by johns. Punish the johns, not the prostitutes, so the argument goes.
Unfortunately, it’s a deeply, deeply conservative argument dressed in progressive clothing, a bad argument, wrongheaded and dangerous. There are lots of reasons why. Here are a few.
One. The effect of a blanket punishment for johns is to punish prostitutes. You’re taking away their business, making them poorer, and you’re heaping stigma onto stigma, making them more marginalized. I say blanket punishment because an abusive or violent john should be punished. Obviously. But by chasing away a john, you chase away a sex worker’s business. Not a nice thing to do for anyone who’s self employed, no?
Two. It’s a basic tenant of economics: a robust market is good for suppliers and a shrinking market is good for buyers. As conditions change, buyers can make more and more demands on suppliers. Meanwhile, such conditions leave suppliers increasingly at the mercy of their buyers.
The more you try to dissuade johns, the more likely a hooker is to take just anyone home — even against her better judgement. Blanket punishment for johns is bad for the healthy sex workers, putting them in more danger of physical assault and rape — and making them more likely to be pressured into unsafe sex.
Three. The argument further infantalizes women as helpless non-actors in their own lives. I had a great conversation with Rob Teixeira from the Sex Laws Committee about six months ago on this subject. According to him (and he’s doing his doctoral thesis on this subject) in the 19th century Western countries became obsessed with sex workers. Under the twin guises of protecting women and improving public health, governments passed a slew of legislation aimed at curbing prostitution and controlling women’s bodies. It was on the one hand paternalistic, turning women into children in the eyes of male voters. On the other hand it had the effect of demonizing women as immoral and disease-ridden.
It’s the latter that particularly irks Michelle Ball from the AIDS Committee of Ottawa. The wording of the letter blames sex work for the transmission of HIV and hepatitis — rather than unsafe sex — and conflates drug addiction with other reasons for entering the sex trade: to pay the rent and feed a family, for instance.
Four. In its application, the john letters erode treasured Canadian values: the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. As I wrote for xtra.ca (a shorter version of the online news story appears in the “briefs” section of this issue), these john letters are reminiscent of the 1970s, when homophobes would collect the license plate numbers of cars parked outside gay bars and follow up with letters or phone calls to the owner of the car — or else out the car owners in the media. It’s doubly offensive because they’re targeting people without going to the trouble of convicting them in court first. And we know the misery, depression and suicide that involuntary outings have caused — even the accusation of so-called “deviant” sexual desires can ruin lives.
Five. Gays and lesbians have cause for alarm. The policing of consensual sex, especially so-called deviant minority sexual activity, is at the root of our historic oppression. So, for a group that his benefited from the liberalization of sex laws, it’s important for us to ensure that laws get more liberal — not less liberal. The drive toward sexual liberation doesn’t stop at gays in happily coupled twos — it encompasses all kinds of sexual minorities: the promiscuous, the polyamourous, the kinky, and yes, sex workers too.
And, duh, there are gay hustlers too, and while Ottawa’s share of male hookers might be safely tucked away in the annals of the internet and in the back pages of newspapers, they could easily be targetted next.
Six. For trans people, a demographic more likely than most to turn to sex work, it’s a matter of utmost urgency. Trans health and the health of sex workers are correlated and it’s trans sex workers who are, without a doubt, one of Canada’s most vulnerable populations.
If there’s good news, it’s that the BC Civil Liberties Association successfully ended the skuzzy practice of mailing john letters in Vancouver. They made it an issue for five years in order to effect change and eventually it worked. Now it’s Ottawa’s turn.