In December 2013, the Canadian Supreme Court struck down our prostitution laws and we have one year from that date to come up with new laws. This means the discussion of what to do to improve the lives of people in the sex trade is front and center here, and any newspaper you pick up has an article in it somewhere about either human trafficking or sex work. This could be a historic year in Canada where we really discuss why prostitution happens and how to help the people affected, but I predict that the discussion will take the form of a lot of vicious fighting and that in the end, women will lose.
There are three primary schools of thought about prostitution in Canada. The religious conservative view is that sex is immoral and women should stop leading men into sin by being whores. (Plenty of non-religious people also subscribe to the women-are-dirty-whores theory.) The feminists and exited women advocate for the Nordic Model whereby the women are decriminalized and helped out of the trade while the johns are punished. Then there’s the legalization group, made of up libertarians who claim that sex work is freely chosen and who want us to think of it as labour.
Since I’m a feminist you’ll assume that I’m on team Nordic Model. Not really, actually. I believe in the sentiments behind the Nordic Model. I understand why people advocate for it. This model is based on the acknowledgment that prostitution is violence against women, that women are human and do not deserve this abuse, and that the men who abuse women should be punished. Absolutely! But the problem is, we live in a patriarchy, and merely punishing a few johns won’t change this. The abuse and exploitation of women is so firmly entrenched in our society that it doesn’t matter what prostitution laws are on the books—women will continue to be abused by men until the feminist revolution.
There is no shortage of newspaper articles about the sex trade in Canada. Many of them are human trafficking cases. It is absolutely terrifying to confront the fact that there is a demand for sex slaves in average Canadian cities. There are men choosing to drug and enslave women, there are men choosing to pay money to pimps to rape women, there are men choosing to rape teenagers. Other articles are not about human trafficking but about empowerfulized sex workers who chose to do sex work and want their trade legalized and unionized. These articles talk about how many licenses there are for body rub parlours in their city and include pictures of smiling women who talk about their jobs. I read all of these articles, no matter what perspective they’re written from. There appears to be an incredible paradox between the exited women who talk about being drugged and repeatedly raped and beaten and the smiling women who seem content to work in a body rub parlour for a while to pay their tuition, but there is a common thread holding these two groups together—the men who are buying them. There is an epidemic of men who believe they are entitled to use women’s bodies for sexual gratification despite the absence of consent or desire on the part of the woman.
Even in the articles about empowerfulized sex workers, it is abundantly obvious they’re being abused. They talk about getting into sex work after running out of money and then frame the situation as if sex work is a positive force keeping them out of poverty when actually poverty is a negative force keeping them in sex work. You get the impression that sexual abuse is inevitable so you might as well be paid for it. In this worldview everything is completely turned around and you forget one important fact: that women are fully human and deserve to be completely liberated from abuse. I really can’t explain why it’s all the rage these days to be pro-legalization. My hypothesis is that women have accepted sexual abuse as inevitable, we’ve forgotten what consent really is, and it’s so horrifying to realize that our boyfriends, husbands, coworkers and bosses think we are subhuman masturbation devices that we just pretend this isn’t going on.
Not only is the acceptance of abuse firmly planted in our minds, but it is an integral part of our economy. Businesses are promoting part-time, temporary work, they’re sometimes shutting down Canadian factories to move to other countries where labour is cheaper, and they’re exploiting the temporary foreign worker program in order to pay less than a living wage to employees. There is a sentiment that unions are at fault for companies setting up shop elsewhere—the unreasonable demand for living wages “hurts business.” Many workers cannot expect to be a permanent part of their company with a stable job and health benefits. Workers are the new commodities: we’re things to be used by companies to accomplish their goals and then discarded at will. Businesses are the new people: they are to be protected from the unreasonable demands of workers. The company-as-person and worker-as-resource worldview is dehumanizing and exploitative.
To eradicate abuse we need to do more than just put pimps and johns in jail. I realize that advocates of the Nordic Model fully intend for the system to provide women with a way out of prostitution, and if this model is adopted, I hope this happens. But I’m looking at the Canadian situation and I doubt we can do the Nordic Model correctly. We have an enormous amount of land and not a lot of people, we’re in an economic recession, and we have a conservative approach to government spending. What are the odds that the government will adopt a new prostitution law within the next year that will address poverty and exploitation properly? Addressing poverty in Canada involves raising the minimum wage, spending money on welfare, employment insurance, and disability benefits, providing adequate child care, correcting racist, sexist and transphobic hiring practices, creating good jobs, treating workers humanely, taxing corporations, and correcting colonialist practices that keep Native people in poverty. What are the odds that the government will take care of all this when they make a new prostitution law? If all we do is put a few johns in jail, the sex trade won’t disappear. Women and trans folk living in poverty will still be desperate for money, and abusive men will continue abusing. The way to eliminate sexual abuse is to overthrow patriarchy and capitalism. You can’t overthrow one without overthrowing the other.
One of the following things will happen in the next year. The government might make it illegal to buy sex in Canada, which will drive the sex trade underground and make it more dangerous. The government might legalize the sex trade, which will provide a temporary band-aid solution to the empowerfulized sex workers while throwing everyone else under the bus. (Actually I would say that legalization even throws the empowerfulized sex workers under the bus, even though they say they want it.) Or it might try to address both human trafficking and so-called “consensual sex work” simultaneously (although I can’t imagine how that could work.) None of these approaches will leave us with a world in which the sexual and economic exploitation of women is unthinkable. The only approach that will accomplish what we need is a radical feminist revolution.
Montreal man gets 6 years in Ottawa human trafficking case
Rosie DiManno: From body-rub parlour ‘wench’ to reporter
Meet Roxy: Student and massage parlour sex worker
Massage parlour or street: still sexual exploitation
Why merry rapists are flocking to Britain by Twisty. My article here is partially inspired by this article of Twisty’s. It is, in my opinion, the best piece of patriarchy-blaming of all-time.