Do some women really choose to be prostitutes?

Some say it's a matter of choice, but to many feminists it's akin to slavery

Dan Gardner
The Ottawa Citizen

Sunday, June 09, 2002

Outside, it's a sunny Thursday afternoon in Vancouver. Inside the Skid Row drop-in centre for prostitutes, it's chaos.

People come and go in a stream. Many are drug addicts, their bodies little more than skin stretched over sticks, their skin ashen and pocked with sores.

A man enters, bleeding from the hand, and Marika Sandrelli hops up to get the first-aid kit. Others in the tiny centre -- prostitutes, junkies, employees -- hardly notice. In the heart of Vancouver's downtown east side, nothing is more ordinary than someone bleeding. Two people curled up in chairs slumber on.

After the triage, the relentlessly cheerful Ms. Sandrelli smiles and shrugs. Working at the centre, run by a group of ex-prostitutes called Prostitution Alternatives Counselling and Education (PACE), means "14 hour days," she says.

"It's endless." In this neighbourhood, hookers work around the clock. The homeless shuffle about. Addicts shoot up in a park across the street, leaving needles scattered like dead leaves.

If anyone should want prostitution wiped out, it is the women here. But far from wanting it eradicated, the women of PACE want it legalized. More than that, Ms. Sandrelli says with bubbly enthusiasm, "we have to honour and respect sex work."

That opinion may be shocking given the context. To understand it, says Char LaFontaine, a middle-aged former prostitute who is now a housing co-ordinator and outreach worker with PACE, a line has to be drawn between "survival sex" and prostitution.

"Somebody who is in prostitution has a right to refuse a date. Women in survival sex don't have the same rights." A pimp, a drug habit or extreme poverty can leave women with no option but prostitution: That's survival sex. Almost all of the prostitution in the downtown east side, she says, is survival sex.

But prostitution is different, Ms. LaFontaine insists. It's a choice.

"There's women that are in prostitution to put themselves through university. There's women in prostitution to buy a house and it's just a faster way to make good money. But again, those women have the right of refusal," says Ms. LaFontaine.

It's not an easy idea to accept. Do some women really choose to be prostitutes?

The debate about choice in prostitution is especially challenging for feminists. Many, perhaps most, see prostitution as subjugation of women by men. But others argue prostitution is about the right of a woman to control and use her body as she sees fit.

That question is rarely debated because the only sort of prostitution that gets much public attention is survival sex. Drug addicts, minors, desperately poor women, women controlled by pimps, foreigners smuggled and controlled by organized crime: These make the news. Adults engaged in private, consensual prostitution don't. This is one reason why, when politicians or police officers are questioned about prostitution, they almost always talk about survival sex.

That's the source of a key mistake, argues Alan Young, a civil libertarian and professor of criminal law at Osgoode Hall Law School who has defended many prostitutes in criminal trials. When people talk about prostitution, they only look at the women who are truly victimized. From that "they extrapolate to the general population of prostitutes." All prostitution is like slavery, they conclude. But many prostitutes are not coerced, Mr. Young insists, and for them prostitution is a choice.

Alan Young, at right, a civil libertarian and criminal law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School has defended many prostitutes. When people talk about prostitution, he says, they only look at the women who are truly victimized. From that 'they extrapolate to the general population of prostitutes.' But many prostitutes are not coerced, Mr. Young insists, and for them prostitution is a choice.

Lynne Kennedy, a Vancouver city councillor and one of the founders of the city's john school, disagrees. "I guess I just met too many sex trade workers myself," she says. "I'm sorry, nobody wants to be in that trade."

Many feminists agree, seeing prostitution as sexual slavery under any circumstances. "Prostitution seriously undermines the autonomy of women," says Suzanne Jay of the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter. "I don't think there's any way that people should be led to believe that women enter into prostitution voluntarily, that there's forced prostitution and non-forced, so-called voluntary, prostitution."

Claims like that anger many of the prostitutes interviewed for this series. Monica Valiquette, a "40-something" prostitute and activist in Edmonton, has a simple reply for those who claim no woman freely chooses to be a prostitute: "You're talking to one." Ms. Valiquette started in prostitution at 19, did it for a few years, and later held a "straight job" for 10 years. "Then one day I just walked off my job and said screw it." She now works through an escort agency and, aside from her work, has a normal life. "I've been married 15 years and in the same relationship for 22."

Ms. Valiquette's story doesn't convince Ms. Jay. "You can't be bought and sold. Even if you think you're doing it by yourself and by your own choice, what's happening is a degrading transaction that involves yourself. I don't think that people, women, can divorce themselves from their bodies. We are our bodies. So, OK, she's claiming she made a choice. That's fine. I would say she is an exception, and I would also say ... part of the way to maintain your sanity is to decide that you've had some choice in life."

That's the sort of "false consciousness" argument commonly heard in feminist theory, says Mr. Young. He finds it offensive. "I can't understand how a thinking person can believe that everyone else is operating under false consciousness because they don't agree with them."

Another line of reasoning is used by Ms. Kennedy. All prostitutes "had dreams and their dreams were not of staying where they were and being in the trade," she says. "I just can't be convinced that that is a career choice that women want to make and stay with."

Sgt. Doug Lang, head of the Vancouver police department's vice unit, agrees. "In talking to the women, I have never, never spoken to a prostitute who's said to me 'I enjoy what I do, so leave me alone.' "

But to Mr. Young, this argument is both wrong and irrelevant.

It's wrong, he says, because "there are some, and I've met some, that very much enjoy what they do. They tend to be much more in the escort service where they have some degree of autonomy and control."

Ms. Sandrelli seconds that. "I know women, some of my best friends in Toronto, who choose to work. They're working, they're working out of their homes, and they are loving it. They're very successful, they're great businesspeople and they are very content."

But more importantly, says Mr. Young, whether prostitutes enjoy their work, or dream of doing something else, is irrelevant to the fundamental question of choice. Many people dislike their jobs and wish for something better, he says, but that does not mean they are victims of coercion. "I see no difference between a miserable office worker and a miserable prostitute."

The debate about choice in prostitution is especially challenging for feminists. Many, perhaps most, see prostitution as Ms. Jay does, as the subjugation of women by men -- something a woman can no more agree to than she can choose to sell herself into slavery. But some feminists argue that prostitution is about the right of a woman to control and use her body as she sees fit -- an argument in line with the feminist demand for abortion rights. Others go further and claim, as Ms. Sandrelli does, that prostitution can even be empowering. The divide between the two feminist schools is marked by real anger.

"We believe that women have a free choice," says Ms. LaFontaine, "and it bothers me to no end that women who profess to be feminists sit in moral judgment of other women. We have a right to do with our bodies what we choose, whether that is abortion, independence, feminism or sex trade. So you can only be a feminist if you believe in the abolition of prostitution? I don't think so, honey. You're not a real feminist."

Mr. Young says feminist demands to abolish all forms of prostitution "bother me immensely because what I thought feminism was about is the empowerment of women and the ability to make choices. And I can't believe that you can consistently argue for the right to abort your fetus and not argue for the right to use your body for sexual employment."

Clearly, the divide between those who see prostitution as a choice in some cases and those who don't is profound. But they should have at least one point of agreement: Prostitutes should not be treated as criminals.

For those who believe it is a choice, prostitution -- as opposed to survival sex -- is about freely choosing to use one's own body in a way that harms no one else. It should not be punished.

For those who insist prostitution is never a free choice, the women involved have been coerced. They should be seen not as criminals who deserve punishment, but victims who need help.

On this score, feminists like Ms. Jay are consistent. They argue that prostitution should be decriminalized for women while harsher punishments should be inflicted on men. Some police officers agree. The Vancouver Police Department, for one, has drastically cut charges against streetwalkers and now only arrests women, for soliciting if it's felt it's in their best interests to intervene.

But overall in Canada, prostitutes continue to be punished. Slightly more than half the 5,000 prostitution-related incidents reported by police in 2000 involved women. Thirty-nine per cent of women convicted of prostitution-related offences are incarcerated, as compared to just three per cent of men.

Whatever one's view of the choice issue, these numbers make little sense.

Next Saturday: Is the law killing women?

Contact Dan Gardner at

 Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen

John Lowman's prostitution
research page

an information site of the missing 54 women

The law has hounded hookers out of safe areas and into dark alleys, making them easy prey for murderers-June 15, 2002

Courting death: Part 2-The law has hounded hookers out of safe areas-June 15, 2002  

The hidden world of hookers (Part 1 and 2)-June 8, 2002

Part 4
How cities 'license' off-street hookers-June 16, 2002

The Ottawa Citizen 



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016