In the past few months, one of my street friends has become involved with a 20 year old ‘working girl’, as he calls her. As you might expect, it’s not been a simple relationship. Both struggle with addiction and deep brokenness. There is a significant age difference. And he’s never entirely sure when she is coming or going… or where. We recently spent one stressful week trying (in vain) to contact her or find out any information at all, really, after she had been picked up on a prostitution-related warrant. He was beside himself with worry, unable to find out where she had been locked up, or how long she would be there. I made some calls too, but no one would tell me anything. So it was a happy morning when, with a big smile on his face, he announced that she was back “home.” For now. There are still at least two outstanding warrants, so it’s only a matter of time before she gets picked up again. But for the moment, they are just happy to be reunited.
As we sat and talked, he looked at me intently and said, “Sweetie, I don’t know if you know this, but like 98% (his stat) of those working girls were horrifically abused as kids.”I told him, I did in fact know this. Well, I don’t know the exact figures, but studies have shown that 75% of youth on the streets were abused – in their own homes. I can only imagine that the percentage of abused girls and boys who are street-involved and end up in prostitution is higher. In fact, a study of prostituted persons in Calgary found that 82% of females and 100% of males polled had been victims of sexual abuse before entering the sex trade.
My friend went on to tell me a bit about her life, bounced from foster homes and group homes, how she’s lived through unmentionable abuse, and how she wakes up every night screaming, reliving abuses she can’t even talk about in her waking hours.
It was a poignant moment for me. Affirming once again the reason for the stand I take on prostitution. While I find it hard to believe, and will likely never fully, I can allow that there may be a small minority of women who choose –really choose from among life affirming options –to prostitute themselves. But by far, most of the women and girls being sold on our streets and in massage parlours are girls not unlike this young one who has captured my friend’s heart. She does it for survival. Because she feels she is of very little value apart from what she can do to service a man. And with every exchange of ‘service’ for money, she relives the horrific abuses that drove her to the streets and haunt her dreams each night.
How can we even consider legitimizing her torment?
This week, the Ontario Court of Appeal is hearing what is known as the Bedford case, a challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws brought by a dominatrix and two former prostitutes. Back in September, Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court ruled that three key provisions of our prostitution laws were unconstitutional, forcing prostituted women to choose between their freedom and their security, as guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The provisions found in violation include living off the avails of prostitution, communication for the purposes of prostitution, and keeping a common bawdy house.
The ruling was appealed by the Governments of Canada and Ontario, and as I write, this second court, a panel of five judges, has begun its evaluation of the arguments, and ultimately, of our laws.
I do agree that Canada’s laws are a sort of half-way measure put in place by a Parliament not quite bold enough to prohibit prostitution outright, but wanting to criminalize certain activities around it in order to discourage the practice.
Given how often we have commented on the topic, it’s probably fair to wonder why the EFC isn’t there, intervening in a case that we feel is of such great importance. The reason is simple. To intervene we would have to speak either for keeping our existing laws, or for striking them down, and we can’t, with integrity, do either.
I’ve said it before, and will say again here and now. The status quo isn’t working. Our laws, as written, serve neither to protect women nor to discourage prostitution. What they do well, in practice and in their application, is to further victimize women who, by and large, have already been victimized horribly.
We are glad that the federal government and others are there to speak against striking down the laws, because the prospect of a legal vacuum is alarming for a number of reasons. And if our Government weren’t there, it would send the message that they were ready and willing to accept prostitution as normal, as acceptable, i.e. that the abuse, purchase and sale of human bodies is appropriate in our “free” nation. So we applaud the leadership the Federal and Ontario governments have shown in their battle to not allow the laws to fall.
However, we don’t think that simply preserving the existing laws is sufficient. There is a third, and better, option. And that is to craft new, better, more coherent laws that would send an even stronger message. Canada is a nation of opportunity, of equality, and prostitution is deeply contrary to both of these. Prostitution represents a lack of opportunity, and thrives on a belief in the fundamental inequality between the sexes – the belief that it is okay for one to purchase another for sexual pleasure.
We believe the Canadian government should re-examine our laws – whether or not they stand or fall in the courts – and give full consideration to the example of Sweden and the other Nordic countries that have followed their lead. Our laws should focus on those who exploit. There is no justice in laws that serve in practice largely to further victimize the victims. There is no justice in seeking to normalize or legitimize what is – with rare exceptions – a tragic consequence of poverty, abuse, entrapment, desperation, broken relationships and a myriad of unhealthy societal realities.
The Swedish re-structuring of prostitution laws that were once similar to our own is one of the most coherent and successful prostitution policy initiatives ever developed. The key is its unique twin-legislative objectives of criminalizing the purchaser of sexual services and decriminalizing and providing support and resources to prostituted women to pursue other viable long-term career and life options.
There must be no ambiguity in defining prostitution as a form of violence, abuse and control towards vulnerable women, children and men. It is time for Canada to shift its focus away from prosecuting the victims of exploitation and towards the prosecution of those who are the purchasers and purveyors of prostitution. We will continue our call for the Government of Canada to take a bold, firm stand that says, as a nation, we will no longer tolerate the exploitation of some for the gratification of others.
Sound thinking at the EFC.