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Should Canada legalise prostitution? The UN Global Commission on HIV and the Law thinks we should. In a recently published a report, the Commission argues for the legalisation of prostitution in every country. While the proposed policy is a harm reduction strategy, it might cause more harm than good.
Let’s break down the harm reduction model to its simplest terms. When we look at harm reduction in the context of substance use, we’re trying to reduce the harm that a drug has on a person who is using the drug. Applying the same model to prostitution requires us to define the woman as the object for consumption. Do you find this at all problematic?
Legalising prostitution inevitably creates a safer environment for the men participating (the users), not a safer environment for the women involved (the objects). In the framework of legalisation, we limit men’s exposure to HIV and other STIs through the requirement of routine health checks for women and the use of condoms, while asking women to meet men’s every sexual desire. Men fuel the demand, and legalisation simply makes it easier for them to access the (safe) product.
Is sex really work? By referring to prostituted women as commercial sex workers, proponents of legalisation serve to legitimise a multi-billion dollar “industry” that keeps power and money in the hands of pimps and brothel owners while placing women into inherently dangerous situations.
We do little to help women by legalising prostitution. There is an evidence-based policy alternative that would actually meet the needs of prostituted women: the abolitionist model. Also known as the Swedish or Nordic model, this framework has three basic components.
One: Decriminalise the women.
Two: Criminalise the men.
And three: Offer sustainable exit strategies from prostitution, including psychosocial support, affordable quality childcare, employment training, and liveable incomes.
The abolitionist model holds men accountable for their behaviour. It challenges the idea that men have a right to sex, that men have a right to buy and use women’s bodies whenever and however they please.
Not convinced that abolition is possible? I often hear the argument that prostitution is the oldest profession and can never be abolished. To this, I challenge you to consider the long and terrible history of slavery in the United States. Where would we be now if those involved in the civil rights movement had decided to not even bother trying?
With prostitution, we’re talking about sexual slavery in a sense, arguably the most dangerous environment a woman can be in today. Legalisation proponents are basically saying that we might as well accept this situation, that it’s ok for men to exploit women, that boys will always be boys. They’re arguing that men have a legal right to purchase women’s bodies.
This makes me uncomfortable. I can’t look a woman in the eyes and tell her that men are never going to change, throw a few condoms in her purse, and remind her to use a panic button inside the room when things get out of hand.
I know that we can do a lot more than just make things a little less awful.
But what about all of the happy hookers? It may be easy to be enticed by glamorous notions of prostitute as sex educator, thriving businesswoman, college student occasionally stripping to pay for tuition, exotic dancer, friend to lonely men, and marriage saver.
Thinking about legalised prostitution as a way for consenting adults to make civilised transactions in order to meet a basic human need may help us sleep at night, but any comfort quickly disintegrates with a harsh reality check.
As highlighted by Victor Malarek (The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It, NY: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 2009), in countries that have legalised prostitution, crime rates have increased significantly, human trafficking has become a bigger problem, and a higher proportion of children have become involved in prostitution. In legalised settings, most prostituted women experience various forms of violence daily, make barely enough money to survive, experience extremely high levels of stress and PTSD, and admit that they wish they could exit from prostitution. Unfortunately, a small number of very vocal proponents of legalisation have painted a very different picture.
Despite what legalisation proponents may have you believe, one can oppose legalisation without being a conservative, patronising prude. It’s usually quite the contrary actually. Abolitionists are the most progressive, compassionate, empowering, sex-positive people I know. We fully support efforts to reduce the stigma faced by prostituted women and respect each woman’s choice about her body. We’re radical feminists with a common vision, fighting for a world free of male violence against women.
Many of us heard about the abolitionist view by reading feminist literature, debating with friends, and, most importantly, talking with prostituted women and survivors. Connecting with women through crisis lines, transition houses, mobile clinics, drop-in programs, participatory research, and so on, we hear story after story of unequal power structures and horrific violence.
We understand that by focusing solely on reducing harm, we would reject our moral responsibility to eliminate harm, thus resigning ourselves to mediocrity and cynicism.
I know we can do better than that. For the health and well-being of our sisters in Canada and abroad, we have to do better than that.
-Andrea K. Thompson