5 – You can’t stop prostitution

SPL You cant stop

There is a common saying that prostitution is “the oldest profession”. While it’s likely more accurate that hunting and gathering is the oldest profession, it is nonetheless true that prostitution has existed since before the beginning of recorded history. Throughout the ages, there have been those who have wished to abolish prostitution and made efforts to do so, but prostitution continues to thrive nonetheless. As long as unfulfilled sexual urges and economic pressures exist, there will always be a market for paid sex. The primary effect of criminalizing this trade is to push it into a black market, which has unintended negative side effects.

Despite this, many people’s approach to prostitution seems to stem from a desire to abolish it utterly. This is a completely understandable and natural desire, given the many deep problems surrounding the sex trade. However, recklessly chasing this unrealistic if noble goal regardless of the costs tend to lead to laws that fail in their stated aims while causing a lot of collateral damage along the way. A realistic approach to dealing with prostitution recognizes that prostitution will continue to exist in some form regardless of what laws we make, and focuses not on eliminating prostitution but rather on reducing the harms caused by it while causing as few new harms as possible. There is no ‘magic bullet’ approach – neither abolition, legalization or anything else – that can completely solve all the issues associated with prostitution, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to reduce these harms as much as we possibly can. There are a number of different harms that people are concerned about when it comes to prostitution, and a lot of the disagreement about how to best handle prostitution comes from the different level of importance that different people place on each kind of harm. Generally speaking, these concerns can be categorized into harms to society at large and harms to the sex workers themselves.

In terms of harms to society, many people are concerned about the corrupting influence that prostitution can have on individuals or society as a whole. There are many who worry that prostitution reinforces negative attitudes toward women, encouraging people (especially men) to view women as obedient sex objects. Some are concerned that the presence of brothels or sex workers will bring undesirable traffic into neighborhoods. It is a concern that exposure to, and temptation by, visible manifestations of prostitution could have a corrupting effect on individuals and on society, degrading the moral fabric of our nation. As well, many Canadians simply find prostitution offensive and do not want to have to see or hear about it, nor be potentially inconvenienced by it.

In terms of harms to the sex workers themselves, there are some who have argued that sex work is by its very nature degrading and psychologically harmful. Sex work is innately dangerous, putting sex workers at risk of physical assault, sexual assault and even murder – especially when their safety option are limited. Sex workers can find themselves under the control of abusive pimps. There are risks in terms of health and disease. There is also believed to be a connection between sex work and drug addiction, although considering this a harm caused by sex work can be a chicken and egg question.

Often, people are so focused on one kind of harm associated with prostitution that they can fail to see the ways in which their efforts to reduce one harm in fact inflict greater harm in another area. In the Canadian laws recently rejected by the Supreme Court, the focus has been on preventing public nuisance, damage to the social fabric and/or the abuses of pimps. However, the finding of most studies and rulings on the matter – such as the Frasier Committee and the ruling of the Canadian Supreme Court and Ontario Appeals Court – is that this focus has increased sex workers’ risk of being physically or sexually assaulted or even killed by abusive clients, to an extent that the laws cause even greater harms than they prevent. There are some who have argued that these serious costs to sex workers are justified by their having chosen to engage in a disreputable line of work. However, in a free and democratic society, can we really morally justify people paying with their safety and even their lives for making a choice that we find objectionable?

Laws that discourage people from engaging in prostitution with an aim to reducing how often it occurs can potentially be a viable strategy to reduce the harms caused by prostitution. However, we must look closely at how such laws increase the potential for harm in those still involved in prostitution. Preventing some prostitution while making the rest more dangerous can very easily result in an increase rather than a decrease to the amount of harm suffered, and most studies suggest that this is the case with our current laws. Furthermore, it’s questionable how much trying to prevent people from entering sex work saves them from harms. People who make the choice to enter sex work must be assumed to do so because they feel it’s better than the other choices available to them (which may involve very serious economic hardship, etc.) and removing the option of sex work without rectifying the problems that lead to it in the first place arguably just puts the sex workers in an even worse position. Of course, not everyone involved in the worst types of prostitution chose to be there, but human trafficking, coercion, procuring and underage prostitution will remain absolutely illegal even after the laws rejected in the Supreme Court are removed from the Criminal Code. The laws that were struck in the recent decision pertain to those who chose to be in sex work, and those people must have chosen their line of work because they viewed their alternatives as even worse. Preventing people from engaging in sex work arguably only saves them from harms by subjecting them to even worse harms, by leaving them in the bad position that pushed them into sex work in the first place without any other options or way out.

Prostitution is a very challenging situation to consider, linked to a lot of different harms on both a societal and personal level. It is a very emotional and upsetting issue on a lot of levels, and  to respond with the desire to throw all our efforts into making it go away is entirely natural. However, despite how understandable it is to look at these problems and simply take the most direct means possible to try to eliminate or reduce the incidence of prostitution, this approach is actually counter-productive and aggravates more harms than it prevents.  Right now, some of our Canadian laws have been rejected by our highest court for not living up to the standards of our constitution and worsening more harms than they prevent in the idealistic but naive attempt to eliminate evils rather than realistically reduce harms. Regardless of what we think about the morality of sex work and those involved in it, we can not blindly pursue the reduction of some harms while ignoring the worsening effects that our efforts have on other harms. If we as a nation truly want to combat the harms of prostitution rather than just blindly fighting the idea of it, then what is needed is a nuanced approach that looks realistically at what harms it is remedying and what harms our approach could be exacerbating.

Both those calling for abolition and those calling for legalization are quick to accuse one another of magical thinking, and in a sense they’re both right. The sad truth is that, no matter how desperately we want one, there is no panacea or silver bullet that will solve all of the issues associated with prostitution. We can only pick the best of our available options, problematic as they may all be. Our attempts to combat the problems around prostitution with criminal abolition have been proven to be ineffective and to endanger the people who we’re trying to protect. This abolitionist model has been unanimously and soundly rejected by the Supreme Court as being unconstitutional and harmful to Canadians and can no longer be considered a viable solution. Despite its problems, legalization and regulation seems to be our best path forward if we want to realistically reduce the harms and dangers associated with prostitution. It’s not a perfect solution but if we’re being realistic rather than engaging in magical thinking we must admit that there are no perfect solutions, and regulated legalization represents the best of the imperfect solutions available.

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