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Commentary: Change your hearts, not just the laws

If you’re one of the handful of people who read my first opinion article at the Cascade, you probably know that I feel very strongly about the laws surrounding the sex trade. The recent revision of Canada’s prostitution laws due to an Ontario court ruling and all of controversy and outrage surrounding it has compelled me to discuss it once again.

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by Alex Watkins (News Writer)

If you’re one of the handful of people who read my first opinion article at the Cascade, you probably know that I feel very strongly about the laws surrounding the sex trade.  The recent revision of Canada’s prostitution laws due to an Ontario court ruling and all of controversy and outrage surrounding it has compelled me to discuss it once again.

From what I understand, many believe that “legalizing” prostitution will cause an increase in this kind of activity, while others believe that it condones the practice.  I feel that the point being missed here is that the actual act of prostitution was not illegal in the first place, only the activities that allowed it to occur (for example, solicitation for the purposes of prostitution).

Making solicitation for the purposes of prostitution illegal means that sex trade workers are forced to conduct their business out of the public eye, which puts them at a greater risk of being abused or raped by customers.  The laws around prostitution have made most sex-trade workers reluctant to report “bad dates” because of their mistrust of police; legalizing the sex trade means that workers will be able to get the men who put them at risk off of the streets. 

It is also a necessary step in combating human trafficking, as those caught up in the trade are extremely fearful of seeking help from police. I believe that the next logical step if we wish to eliminate human trafficking is to enact laws that protect victims from deportation if they report their crimes; without this kind of protection, few will come forward.

Prostitution will continue to occur regardless of legal ramifications. People object to prostitution by saying that it is demeaning, dangerous and immoral, and say that they do not wish to legally condone it because they would prefer women were not in the sex trade in the first place. Those who profess to really care about these women should realize that they will likely continue to work in that trade regardless of its legal status, and should focus on making sure that their health and safety is protected as much as possible.

Having sex trade workers operating in brothels is beneficial for their health and safety; working on the street or out of their homes forces women into a dangerous situation where they often do not have the protection of others. Those who complain about the visibility of prostitution in their neighborhoods should consider the legalization of brothels as a partial solution.

The argument that legalizing prostitution will cause a sudden flood of traffic in the industry is ridiculous – it is one that was previously used against the legalization of abortion, and is also currently used against the legalization of marijuana. 
If a person genuinely wants or needs to work in the industry or patronize it, they will do it, regardless of the legal consequences. I defy anyone to tell me that the only thing keeping them from buying sex is the fact that it is illegal. 

To assume that all adults’ decision making is based merely on obedience to the law and fear of punishment is to give them very little credit as autonomous, free-thinking individuals. 

Many people draw an inaccurate parallel between the law and morality; while it is true that laws are generally formed to reflect the moral standards of a population (as some violations are deemed unacceptably deviant and worthy of punishment/deterrence) they are not always one and the same. In fact, most people would agree that some of our past laws were completely immoral; for example, slavery was once legal, and until recently women were considered property. Just because something is the law does not mean that it is a universal moral standard.

I strongly believe that the real problem here is that many people have a moral objection to prostitution, and therefore want to keep laws that deter it in place regardless of an abundance of irrefutable scientific proof that a punitive approach to the sex trade does precious little to correct the problem.

Not wanting to change prostitution laws because we feel that it would condone something that we would prefer to eliminate altogether is shortsighted and counterproductive. The fact that the change to Canada’s prostitution laws moved forward despite all of the controversy bolsters my faith in our society and gives me real hope for the future.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Michelle Brock

    October 11, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Thanks Alex for this post, and though I don’t agree with you on all the points I respect the way in which this was written. There is a raging debate on both sides when it comes to the link between prostitution and trafficking, and the nature of prostitution itself. A very interesting article just came out by Max Waltman on Sweden’s anti-prostitution law and its effects. You can read it here:

    http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/Waltman2010ProhibitingPurchaseOfSexInSweden_WORKING_PAPER-3.pdf

    Waltman gives examples from New Zealand and Victoria, Australia, about how legalization has not reduced harm for sex workers but instead normalizes sexual violence. He bases this on surveys filled out by sex workers themselves. Once again, I am sure there are two sides to this, but it is worth a read if you want to take a look at the other side of this debate.

    I personally think that Canada should head in the same direction as Sweden, though tweak it to make it more suitable for Canada. As Waltman says “making the sexual exploitation of women legal and subject it to regulations cannot transform an age-old oppression into a harm-free work environment.” Considering that most sex workers (not all) have a rough past with sexual/emotional/physical abuse and/or poverty, regulating doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue.

    Thanks for being part of this debate…dialogue about these types of issues is so important!

    Michelle

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