3 min

Victimizing sex workers again

Parliamentary report reflects Victorian morality

It’s déjà vu all over again; the government studies prostitution and nothing will happen.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee On Justice And Human Rights struck a subcommittee in 2004 on Canada’s solicitation laws. The members, drawn from all four governing parties, were to review the laws with an eye to improving the safety of sex workers, and to recommend changes that would reduce the violence and exploitation directed toward them.

A good start: Canada’s solicitation laws are a mess. Selling sex per se is not illegal. But most things surrounding it are criminalized. Communicating for the purposes of selling sex, operating a common bawdy house (a place where prostitution occurs), and living on the avails of prostitution are all illegal. You can sell sex, as long as you don’t advertise or communicate in any way with your clients, or have a place that you do it, or support anyone from the money you make doing it.

In its report (for more on the report, turn to page 7) the committee recognized that these laws are “contradictory.” Not bad either. In the portion of the report written by the majority — members of the Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois parties — sexual activities between consenting adults that do not harm others should not be criminalized. Hallelujah. What a radical idea. No harm, no crime. But they did not make this statement a recommendation.

As well, the opinion was not unanimous. The Conservative members saw prostitution as a “degrading and dehumanizing act, often committed and controlled by coercive or opportunistic individuals against victims who are frequently powerless to protect themselves from abuse and exploitation.”

The majority recognized that prostitution, particularly street prostitution, has many potentially coercive and exploitative dimensions. But they refused to allow those dimensions to define the field as a whole. Rather, much of the report emphasized the two tiers of prostitution: street prostitution, where sex workers are subject to the worst forms of exploitation, violence and coercion, and other forms of prostitution, where consent and control of working conditions is possible.

But not the Conservatives. For them, prostitution is an evil that must be stamped out. All prostitution signals that “the commodification and invasive exploitation of a woman’s body is acceptable.” Prostitutes are victims, and all efforts must be made to get them out of prostitution. It is a kind of radical feminism 101: prostitution as inherently degrading and subordinating of women.

(Male, transvestite and transgendered prostitutes get short shrift in the report. Only 10 lines acknowledge them. stating that male prostitutes are less likely to suffer violence from their clients, but more likely to be victims of violence by the public, doubly so for trans sex workers.)

The Conservative vision of women-as-victims comes with a punitive twist. Sure, let’s try to get women out of prostitution. But, if they don’t listen, watch out. First time offenders, and those forced or coerced into prostitution would be given an opportunity to get out and avoid a criminal record. But “those who freely seek to benefit from the ‘business’ of prostitution would be held accountable for the victimization which results from prostitution as a whole.”

In other words, if a person chooses to be a sex worker, and quietly runs her business out of her house, she will be held responsible for all of the harms of prostitution.

Sure, it’s only a minority opinion. But let’s remember who’s in charge.

And quite frankly, the majority opinion is not a whole lot better. Yes, it got the basic idea of decriminalizing consensual sex. But that’s it. It is virtually devoid on any concrete recommendations. After saying that the status quo is unacceptable, all they manage to do is recommend education campaigns and programs to stop people from entering prostitution and helping them to get out. They don’t even specify what kinds of programs. Rather, they called for more research into the lives of sex workers and the laws that affect them.

Now I am a big fan of research. But more research isn’t really what’s most urgently needed here. The government has repeatedly studied prostitution. There was the Badgley Report (1984), and then the Fraser Report (1985), that told us a lot about prostitution and its legal regulation. Nothing happened.

What is needed is a little legislative guts. Decriminalize prostitution. Then, and only then, can the government begin to address the myriad of exploitative conditions that surround it, particularly in relation to street prostitution. Because the law itself is a huge part of the problem that street prostitutes face.

This report is a classic example of best intentions on the road, if not to hell, then to purgatory. Some members of Parliament worked really hard on this, and came to believe that reform of Canada’s arcane prostitution laws is required. But their recommendations are vapid.

Add this to the fact that the Conservatives, with their patronizing, 19th-century views of sex and sexuality, run the government. So nothing will happen. The laws will remain the same, and sex workers, particularly those who work the street, will continue to be harassed and endangered by them, as they fend for themselves on hostile streets. What a waste. And a travesty.