Opinion: Regulating prostitution

POSTED: 06/27/14 1:59 AM

A bill introduced in Canada by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government would criminalize buying sexual services but would not necessarily make selling them illegal. It follows a Canadian Supreme Court ruling last year that overturned most laws governing the sex trade. The Canadian venture sheds a fresh light on one of the darker industries that also has St. Maarten in its grip. Read this op-ed from the New York Times by Jake Flanigan

For countries that choose to regulate prostitution, it remains a vexing question: What’s the best way to do it?

Canada’s answer, as Colby Cosh writes in Maclean’s, is to “put the concept of prostitution back into the Criminal Code.” He adds: “For decades, we had these leftover Victorian laws against ‘living off the avails’ and keeping a ‘bawdy house’ without any actual ban on prostitution itself. Victorians were fairly respectful of the limits to state activity, and knew that prostitution is one of the oldest, most universal human institutions. They did not presume to be able to eliminate it.”

The bill, C-36, seeks to replicate the “Nordic model” of sex-work regulation, enacted in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, which bans buying but not selling sex in an effort to curb demand. The Canadian version also criminalizes any form of communication expressly for the purpose of transacting in sex, or receiving any “material benefit from sexual services,” according to the National Post’s John Ivison.

But this is an unfortunate departure from what the University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, writing for The Globe and Mail, calls “the British legal tradition” on prostitution. Neither the sale nor purchase of sex has been criminalized in any of the major Commonwealth countries. Instead, parliaments in Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have sought to contain sex work and the problems associated with it: sexually transmitted diseases, trafficking of women and minors, and general “disorder on the streets.”

Mr. Flanagan likens the approach to more practical “harm reduction” strategies that have replaced unrealistic “war on drugs” policies: “Both recognize that the state will never succeed in stamping out vice when willing sellers and buyers are in the market.”

But bill C-36 “is likely to make life even more unsafe for many prostitutes,” Mr. Ivison writes. If they are prohibited from advertising their services from the safety of their own home, “many more are likely to take to the streets in search of business,” where the likelihood of assault is significantly higher.

He looks to New Zealand for sensible sex-work policy. Prostitution there is decriminalized but regulated, and “while there was no dramatic change in the number of people involved in the sex industry, there was an improvement in safeguarding the rights of workers to refuse particular clients,” the very “perpetrators,” “perverts” and “pimps,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay of Canada targeted in a speech supporting bill C-36.

There are economic reasons to legalize sex work, too. According to The Wall Street Journal (paywall), the sex trade contributed £5.3 billion (about $9 billion) to the British gross domestic product in 2014.

The Washington Post’s Charles Lane looks across the Atlantic as well, but what he sees as the fruits of sex-work legalization aren’t especially heartening. In 2001, Germany essentially deregulated prostitution, but “things haven’t quite gone according to plan,” he writes. “Large brothels have popped up in various cities, packed with women and girls lured by human traffickers from poverty-stricken Eastern Europe and handed over to pimps upon arrival.”

These “virtual prisons” are prime destinations for international sex tourists, who “flock to German establishments that offer unlimited sex for a ‘flat rate’ of 100 euros (about $135) or, sometimes ‘gang-bang’ parties, according to extensive exposés of what some the German press call ‘modern slavery.’ Meanwhile, there has been no increase in prostitutes signing up for social benefits.”

A 2013 editorial in Der Spiegel echoes Mr. Lane’s sentiments: “What if the German prostitution law actually helps human traffickers?” The editorial relays the story of an 18-year-old Romanian girl who escaped “modern slavery” in a Munich brothel. Before coming to Germany, she was approached by three men and two women on the street in her home village. They promised her nannying work for a German family and offered to take her west — an attractive prospect for many youngsters in Romania’s floundering economy.

Instead, upon arriving in Germany, her handlers “blindfolded her and took her to a basement cell with a door that could only be opened with a security code.” The men raped her. And when she persisted in refusing to work in a brothel, they beat her.

Rachel Lloyd worked in Germany’s sex industry as a teenager. In a post written for The New York Times’s Room for Debate blog, she claims “violence is inherent in the sex industry,” regardless of its legal status in a country. “Numerous studies show that between 70 percent and 90 percent of children and women who end up in commercial sex were sexually abused prior to entry. No other industry is dependent upon a regular supply of victims of trauma and abuse.”

“The argument that legalizing prostitution makes it safer for women just hasn’t been borne out in countries implementing full legalization,” Ms. Lloyd writes. “In fact, legalization has spurred traffickers to recruit children and marginalized women to meet demand.” But neither does she see much merit in arguments for full-on criminalization: “Criminalizing women and girls in commercial sex — who are overwhelmingly victims of violence — is not the solution.”

“To truly address trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, it’s critical to address the systemic factors making girls and women so vulnerable,” she writes: “poverty, gender inequity, racism, classism, child sexual abuse, lack of educational and employment opportunities for women and girls globally.”

Bill C-36 is largely deficient in that regard. In an interview with Vice News, a volunteer at a Vancouver women’s shelter said that while the law is useful in that it “recognizes the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual activity,” she is wary of the fact that “it doesn’t fully address the compounding inequalities of race, class, and gender in prostitution.”


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