VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
The many faces of prostitution
Opposition to legalized prostitution lies in its public perception as a drug-addled, violent, criminal trade. But the stereotype is not true.
Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen
A couple of weeks ago, Vic Toews, the new justice minister, was asked by a reporter how he would respond if, as expected, a Commons sub-committee studying prostitution recommended that prostitution be legalized under certain conditions. He'd oppose it, said the minister. "I don't particularly think that legalization is helpful, other than strengthening the hands of organized crime."
Ordinarily, a politician asked about a hypothetical recommendation from a committee that isn't close to finishing its work would say only one thing: I can't answer now. Ask me when I have the committee's report.
But here was a senior minister casually brushing off the whole idea, and the Commons sub-committee that may or not back it, without even pretending to have a look at the case for change.
It's not terribly surprising, and not only because Mr. Toews may be the most conservative justice minister ever to occupy the office.
Prostitution is one of those subjects about which most people think they know it all. They know about prostitutes and their customers and how the trade functions. They know exactly what the laws are and what they should be.
And they know all this because they've read a couple of newspaper articles about pimps and hookers. Or they have a friend who knew a prostitute once. Or they are social workers, prosecutors or doctors who have worked with prostitutes.
Or they just know it because it would be awful to be a prostitute, so it's obvious who's involved and why and what it does to a woman, isn't it?
A recent exchange in the National Post neatly revealed the layers of ignorance and ideology informing so much of the chatter about the oldest profession.
On March 4, the Post published an editorial calling for the legalization of prostitution. Mr. Toews is wrong, the editorialists argued. Legalization "would lower organized crime's hold" on the business and it would "protect the women drawn into prostitution."
Now, I happen to agree with the Post, but more interesting to me was the reaction of the Post's readers.
Most letters to the editor were deeply opposed.
"Your arguments in favour of legalizing prostitution are, as so many others I have read, completely blind to the issues that lead to the practice of prostitution," wrote one reader, "the primary one being severe childhood sexual and emotional abuse."
Another supported Mr. Toews for defending "the unfortunate women, and girls, who have been enslaved by organized crime. Instead of condoning this degrading profession, the government can elevate these women by helping them return to the safer confines of mainstream society."
A psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Mrozek, wrote to say that legalization would not free prostitutes from criminals because women in prostitution are "persons in various stages of arrested development, which results in various forms of disordered personality. They tend to be emotionally immature and dependent and crave affection at any cost."
Another wrote that all prostitutes are forced to do what they do, one way or another, because "nobody with true freedom of action voluntarily deprives themselves of their dignity, to sell their body for sex."
There are some obvious problems with all these claims. For one, there's the strange non sequitur of saying "prostitutes are victims, therefore we must continue to criminalize what they do and arrest them." It's also a little odd to point to the miserable results of the status quo as proof that the status quo must not be changed.
And the common claim that legalizing prostitution would amount to condoning it is not only inherently wrong -- adultery is not endorsed simply because we do not arrest adulterers, nor suicide because we no longer slap handcuffs on those who attempt it as they lie on their hospital beds -- it seems to be based on the mistaken belief that prostitution itself is illegal. It's not. The law forbids public solicitation, the keeping of a "bawdy house" and other acts that, in practical terms, make it close to impossible to conduct prostitution legally. But peeling back some of the restrictions wouldn't engage the alleged symbolism of making prostitution legal. It already is.
But the basic problem with all these letter-writers is that they talk about prostitution as if it were one thing -- as if there were one type of woman involved, one customer, one experience. And one conclusion about what should be done about it.
Who is a prostitute? For these letter-writers, as for so many Canadians, that's easily answered. First, she is a woman. No one pays much attention to the men offering sex for money, although they are a significant part of the sex trade.
She is probably working on the street. She is controlled by pimps and gangsters. She routinely suffers violence. And she got into the trade because of drug addiction, poverty and mental problems caused by her deprived and abusive childhood.
She hates her life. She hates herself.
Anyone who has spent time studying prostitution, as I have, knows that women like this do exist. But she is not the face of prostitution, because prostitution has many faces.
Most experts estimate that 80 per cent or more of the sex trade happens off the street and that sector is very diverse. There are escort agencies, women working out of their apartments, massage parlours and some strip clubs. Even the small minority of the trade that happens on the street is diverse, with different "strolls" being used by very different women and customers.
The presence of pimps, violence and drug addiction -- the three blights associated with prostitution in the public mind -- varies widely from one situation to the next. Some situations -- almost always on the street -- are rife with all three. Others are free and clear.
The image we have of the bedraggled junkie selling herself on the street is real, certainly, but it is just one of many realities in the sex trade. So is the educated woman who makes a very comfortable living accompanying her dinner companion back to five-star hotels. And between these extremes there is a wide array of realities, each as different as the women involved. Simplification is a mistake.
Pimps are an excellent example of how people get it wrong. Those who support legalization argue that prostitutes are forced to turn to pimps "to provide them with protection," as the Post editorial says, because they can't get it from the police. Those opposed respond, as Dr. Mrozek did, that pimps control prostitutes by manipulating their psychological needs, and legalization wouldn't change that.
The truth is, they're both right -- in some cases.
The big reason why simplistic images of the sex trade dominate the public mind is that they dominate the media. And they dominate the media for the simple reason that the commerce of sex, in almost all its forms, is illegal and it's hard to get credible, objective facts about a black market. So journalists are forced to turn to people who claim expertise in the subject.
Many of these experts are activists whose views are shaped far more by ideology than anything else. The most prominent of these are radical feminists for whom prostitution is, under any circumstances, slavery and who routinely depict the most pathological forms of prostitution -- the pimp-controlled, street-walking junkie -- as typical of the whole.
The other source journalists turn to are professionals who work with prostitutes: social workers, police officers and doctors. The problem with this is illustrated in Dr. Mrozek's comments: He assumes that because the prostitutes he has seen have personality disorders, all prostitutes must have personality disorders. It apparently hasn't occurred to him that prostitutes without disordered personalities aren't likely to see psychiatrists.
Similar mistakes are made all the time. Social workers generalize from their experience although they aren't likely to meet prostitutes who have their lives together. Police officers do the same even though police officers won't come into contact with prostitutes who conduct their business quietly and safely.
Unfortunately, simple images invite simple solutions that don't fit complex realities and can do real harm as a result. Forbid-and-arrest is the simplest and most wrong-headed simplistic solution. But so too is the idea that repealing the criminal law is enough.
What's needed is legalization -- and regulation. It is in the details of regulation that the contours of the complex reality can be mapped and the most effective solutions developed. This may be unsatisfying for ideologues, and it doesn't make for good cut-and-thrust of a newspaper debate, but if Mr. Toews and other parliamentarians are genuinely concerned for the safety and well-being of prostitutes, they might at least consider it.
Dan Gardner is a senior writer at the Citizen. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
© The Ottawa Citizen 2006
Updated: September 16, 2014