by Julia Beazley:
Last week, an article in these pages (Legalize the Sex Trade, Kate Shannon and Sandra Ka Hon Chu, June 11), saw the authors declare that “the science is unequivocal: criminalization of sex work in Canada, and globally, has been an abject failure in protecting sex workers from violence, predation and murder.” While I might question which particular scientific studies the authors were referring to, I don’t disagree that the laws have failed to protect. The criminalization of sex work — more specifically, of people who are being prostituted — has indeed failed
Canada’s existing laws have proven ineffective at discouraging prostitution and protecting women. But the evidence is unequivocal that decriminalization or legalization of prostitution has been a greater failure. Countries that have legalized prostitution have found it neither provides more control over criminal behaviour nor offers greater protection for women from violence. It has also led to increased rates of sex trafficking.
The only model of law that has proven effective is the so-called “Nordic” model, first enacted in Sweden more than a decade ago. This model recognizes the vast majority of prostituted persons are not for sale by choice. Sweden’s law focuses its punitive powers on the johns, the pimps and the traffickers.
Swedish legislators started from the premise that prostitution is only and ever a form of sexual violence and exploitation of vulnerable women, men and children. Rather than try to manage or control prostitution, they determined to abolish it, establishing legal and social measures that take aim at the roots of sexual exploitation. Under this model, prostituted persons are decriminalized and those who purchase sexual services are criminalized; with fines geared to income and possible imprisonment. It has proven to be the most successful prostitution policy developed in a democratic society; and has been replicated in Norway, Iceland and is in various stages of consideration in France, Israel and Ireland. Targeting the demand has been demonstrated to be the most effective means of reducing rates of prostitution and sex trafficking.
Why is this? Because the violence experienced by women in prostitution is not rooted in the laws on paper, or in how they stand up to a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The violence directed at women in prostitution is rooted in the demand for paid access to women’s bodies — and the fundamental inequality that underlies this sense of entitlement.
The reality too often ignored in debate over which laws are best is that prostitution itself is inherently dangerous. It’s not the laws that endanger women in prostitution. It’s not the street corners or the alleyways that prey on, rape, assault and murder women. It’s the pimps, traffickers and buyers whose disrespect and devaluation of those women goes unchecked. To suggest that if prostituted women had time to make better choices about which customers to accept, or to negotiate the price and acts they will perform, they would be less subject to violence, is to put the responsibility for reducing violence squarely on the wrong shoulders.
In Sweden, children are taught in school from a young age that the purchase of sex is not just illegal, it’s unacceptable; it’s violence against women, and contrary to gender equality
The violence is rooted in the underlying view among the people, mostly men, that purchase them that women in prostitution are somehow fundamentally different from their mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives and daughters. This misperception justifies treatment of women as objects to be bought and sold. The very existence of prostitution requires a subclass of people who are available to be bought, sold and rented; people understood to be somehow just a little less equal than everyone else. The Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia have discovered that legalizing prostitution does not change this.
A key to the success experienced in Sweden is a public awareness campaign that accompanied the change in law. Children are taught in school from a young age that the purchase of sex is not just illegal, it’s unacceptable; it’s violence against women, and contrary to gender equality. This may be the most effective in the long run, because children are growing up with a different understanding of what respect between the sexes means.
If we truly want to stop the violence experienced by women in prostitution — and I believe we all agree at least on that point — let’s do as Sweden did, and tackle the problem at its roots.
Julia Beazley is a Policy Analyst with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.