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Decriminalizing Prostitution May Not Be the Answer

Despite the politically correct movement to effectively rebrand prostitution as sex work and to decriminalize prostitution as a whole, many who have dealt with the abuses of prostitution don't think such a semantically motivated shift would improve the...

by Meghan Murphy
Dec 12 2013, 9:02pm

Terri Bedford, the sex worker/prostitute turned dominatrix who has taken on the Canadian government. via Wikipedia.

A bill put forth by France’s Socialist government was approved this past week in an effort to crack down on trafficking and address the demand for prostitution, while supporting women trapped in the industry.

Modeled after what’s commonly referred to as the Nordic model, the law was adopted by Sweden in 1999, has since been implemented in Iceland and Norway, and is under consideration in Ireland. The new law will ensure those working in prostitution remain decriminalized, while the men who buy sex are fined.

Though the model has been extremely successful in Sweden, reducing both trafficking and street prostitution dramatically, other countries and human rights groups are still wavering on the best way forward. UNAIDS and UN Women recently made statements demonstrating support for either legalizing (meaning regulation of the industry) or fully decriminalizing the sex trade (removing the laws criminalizing the purchase of sex, pimping, and brothel-keeping), and the Canadian courts are considering striking down the laws that criminalize pimps and johns.

Recent efforts to frame prostitution as “sex work” are strongly connected to this push to completely decriminalize the industry. And while some might argue that the term “prostitution” is outdated and disrespects the women in trade (as Sarah Ratchford does in her recent VICE article), according to some prostitution survivors and feminist organizations, the terms "sex work" and "sex worker" are disrespectful and offensive for a myriad of other reasons.

Sometimes framed as a politically correct approach, the language of “sex work” and the discourse surrounding it has been adopted by some as a way to normalize and sanitize the sex industry—while apparently erasing the exploitative aspects that are inherent to prostitution. Bridget Perrier is an Aboriginal woman who was prostituted on the streets and in brothels across Canada from the age of 12. She managed to exit the trade and is now co-founder and First Nations educator at Sextrade 101, a survivor-led, abolitionist organization out of Toronto. “To me the terms ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’ are both very offensive because of my own experience as a sexually exploited child,” she told me over email.

When I spoke with author and prostitution survivor, Rachel Moran, she told me she hated those more politically correct terms because they were “lies.” “They are deliberately constructed in order to conceal a truth that I was living every day,” she told me. “I hated what I was doing. I hated every moment of it. But I absolutely despised lying about it.”

Andrea Matolcsi, a trafficking expert at Equality Now, an international human rights organization advocating on behalf of girls and women, was disappointed when two reports, backed by UNAIDS, UNDP, and UNFPA came out advocating for the full decriminalization of prostitution.

Shortly thereafter, UN Women sent out a note that, while not an official position, uses the language of “sex work.”  And while “They talk a lot about people’s ‘right’ to be in prostitution, but not their right to be out of it,” Matolcsi says.

Conversations around “sex work” often focus on the issue of “choice”—whether or not, for example, women should have the right to “choose” prostitution as a “career,” or whether or not “consenting adults” should have to right to engage in sex in exchange for money. What we don’t talk about enough is the context behind said “choices.” Issues like poverty, abuse, gender inequality, racism, and a history of colonialism all play a role in leading women into prostitution and keeping them there.

Perrier agrees that the framing of prostitution as a “choice” for some women distorts reality: “Those words—‘choice’ and ‘choose’—are words that those who are encased in the sex industry say to themselves so that they can cope,” she told me.

One of the key mistakes made by UN Women, UNAIDS and other groups working to decriminalize the purchase of sex, is the push to distinguish between “sex work” and trafficking. The idea behind this framing is that one situation is “chosen” while the other is not. But it isn’t as simple as that. Experts, advocates, and prostitution survivors know that to ignore the connections between prostitution, exploitation, and trafficking is to ignore the realities of the sex industry.

Swedish journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman recently published a book looking at the sex trade and Sweden’s experience with the Nordic model. She believes that trafficking is intricately tied to prostitution. “Trafficking comes in when there isn’t a large enough supply of prostitutes for the demand that exists, if you’re talking in market terms. In the Western world there are never enough women who enter the sex industry willingly. So trafficking isthe answer to the question of supply and demand."

“If there were thousands of women lining up outside brothels saying ‘Please, let me in to work!’ why would the mafia need to drag them across Europe or across the world?” Ekman asks.

In other words, prostitution exists because of demand, not because of women's "choices." 

Perrier says there is absolutely no difference between trafficking and other forms of prostitution. “Human trafficking is simply the transportation of women for the purpose of prostitution. The act of buying a women or girl is the same whether it is done in a legal establishment or on a street corner.”

Matolcsi also challenges efforts to frame prostitution as simply a career choice some women make and the subsequent separation of “sex work” from trafficking. “They forget the connections and overlaps between illegal and legal prostitution, between child prostitution and adult prostitution, and the huge amount of trafficking and exploitation that happens in legal sectors.” The notion that there is, somehow, a “safe, clean, legal prostitution industry” is false, she says.

The lines some try to draw between various forms of prostitution in order to make it “ok” are imagined. Prostituted children become adults, trafficked women work in “legal” massage parlours and in the windows of the red light district of Amsterdam, and illegal prostitution is rife in places that have legalized or fully decriminalized the industry.

As a result of these distortions, survivors of prostitution are speaking out against the myth of a “safe” legal industry and the language of “sex work.”  

Many organizations have been publicly critical of the UNAIDS-backed reports and the note sent out by UN Women. UN Women Sweden expressed concern, stating: “Prostitution never is a voluntary act. There are factors behind why a woman—and occasionally a man—is forced to sell her/his body.”

Advocates agree that the Nordic model is the best way to go. “This is a model that protects the most vulnerable,” Perrier says. “It targets the demand instead of the prostituted.”

Ekman says Sweden’s experience with the law has been positive and is supported by 80% of the population: “Not only has demand decreased but the majority of the population now understands prostitution as a product of gender inequality.”

It’s been pointed out by organizations like Equality Now that the experiments with legalization in places like the Netherlands and Germany have failed drastically and, as a result, politicians and women’s groups are now pushing for new laws.

Moran believes “countries like Germany, Australia, and Nevada will be held to account, historically, for human rights violations against people—mainly women—as far as legalized prostitution is concerned.”

Canada is currently in a position to take a nuanced and progressive approach with regard to prostitution law, as France has done. The Supreme Court will be making a decision on Bedford v. Canada, a case challenging Canada’s prostitution laws as unconstitutional, in the near future. While a decision to strike down laws criminalizing brothel-keeping and pimping will surely encourage trafficking and increase prostitution, as we’ve seen happen elsewhere, a law similar to the one adopted by France would send a message that says: In Canada, women aren’t for sale.

Meghan Murphy is a writer and journalist from Vancouver, B.C.

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