Safer for Whom? True Harm Reduction for Prostituted Women

HandsOpen a brothel. Regulate the industry. Move it inside. These are some of the sanitized solutions provided by a recent report from Living in Community (LIC) in an attempt to address the harms of prostitution. The report is replete with stylized pictures of happy families, smiling children and peaceful cityscapes, betraying the inherent violence perpetrated by the sex industry.

There is a line of thinking that views prostitution as “work” and the sex industry as commerce. It reasons that if we normalize prostitution and treat the problems associated with it as labour issues, then the harm experienced by women will be reduced. I reject this view as deeply unjust, rather naming prostitution as the systemic abuse of women. In order to truly reduce harm for prostituted women we must name prostitution as an exploitative system and reject measures that would further entrench and legitimate the sex industry.

In its effort to reduce harm the LIC report ends up with a short-sighted analysis that will only serve to create a more robust sex industry in Vancouver and cause more damage to all of society. The study is riddled with contradictions and belies an agenda to legitimate the buying and selling of women’s bodies for the sexual pleasure of others.

So what is the LIC project? Two years ago a businesswoman in the Hastings area and a self-described “indoor sex worker” came together to look at how businesses, residents, and prostituted persons could “make communities healthier and safer” for all affected by prostitution. Their hope was to perform research and consult with community members, then come up with a plan that would reduce harm and increase safety.

Their resulting project, Living in Community (LIC), was funded by the federal, provincial and city governments, and last week released the culmination of a two year study and alleged community consultation.

I attended the consultation in my area, the Grandview Woodlands neighbourhood, curious to see how LIC was going to lead us in a participatory dialogue on how to work towards justice and a reduction of the terrible harm experienced by marginalized prostituted women.

Upon entering the room I was shocked to see a previously conceived plan slickly printed on presentation boards and set up around the walls. We were asked to vote on the preconceived plan, but it was unclear how our perspectives would shape the outcome. Were our opinions and concerns really being heard?

We hoped so, but imagine my surprise when the report came out looking nearly exactly like what was posted on the walls, even though the community dialogue revealed significant dissent. My neighbours and I couldn’t help but wonder if we were being used as pawns.

As someone who has advocated for the dignity of prostituted women for many years, let me give you a deeper look into the so-called prostitution debate and briefly interact with the action plan presented by LIC.

There are two ways of conceptualizing prostitution. One envisions prostitution as work and thinks that the problems associated with it will be fixed by working out safer labour conditions. They would say that sex is simply a business transaction and the “workers” need a safe place where they can conduct their trade. The other, an abolitionist approach, recognizes prostitution as an oppressive system of violence against women that must be resisted and abolished. In the meantime, systemic conditions that cause women’s vulnerability need to be addressed and prostituted persons must be provided with the support they need to escape prostitution. Prostitution is violence, not commerce.

To be fair, some of the LIC recommendations are laudable and hold integrity. In several of their twenty-seven action points they address the need for safe houses, longer term housing, exiting programs for women to leave prostitution, and treatment for addiction. But other of their action items reveal the contradictory nature of this report: the systemic exploitation of women is presented as a “business” and the women who are terrorized by it are described as “workers.” Which is it? A damaging experience that requires safe houses and a high level of support to leave, or simply a “job?”

LIC has a strong desire to fight child and youth sexual exploitation, but makes absolutely no connection between the “adult sex industry” and child and youth exploitation. If a girl is under the age of 18 she is considered a victim of exploitation, but once she turns 18 she magically turns into an “adult sex worker.” She is liberated and empowered by her “choice” to prostitute herself. Victimhood becomes empowerment.

Early in the report LIC claims they have “chosen to focus without judgement on the current realities of the lives of residents, businesses, sex workers and customers of sex workers.” They go on to state that their “shared goal is not to engage in philosophical debate, but to take a pragmatic stance.” This claim to neutrality is betrayed by the sanitized rhetoric with which they speak of prostitution. They use the terms “sex worker” and “customer” which belie an agenda to legitimate the buying and selling of women’s bodies and dismiss the rape and abuse women experience at the hands of perpetrators. People who are abolitionist use the term “prostituted women” and “john” to reveal the fact that people are exploited by a system. It is not their identity nor is it a “job.” Prostitution is violence, not commerce.

LIC states that “sex workers do not necessarily come from dysfunctional families,” however, the likely profile of a prostituted person includes violence, rape and abuse. LIC deliberately ignores the documented connections between prostitution and childhood sexual abuse. It is consistently reported that 85% of prostituted women experienced a history of sexual abuse in childhood; 70% were victims of incest. The average age of entry into prostitution is 14. Most girls are recruited or coerced into prostitution by someone who holds power over them and exploits their vulnerability, usually a vulnerability born of previous abuse.

Action 21 of the report offers the recommendation to open a brothel, sanitized under the term “a multi-stakeholder cooperative to provide safe indoor workspaces.” The report states that a group of sex industry advocates “has conducted extensive planning and research and the Vancity Community Foundation has been supporting (them) in the development of a business plan.” In every country where brothels have operated with impunity the situation has actually increased the harm for the most vulnerable. The only people who benefit are the pimps, traffickers and predators.

With “legitimate” brothels comes a dramatic increase in the demand for sexual access to the bodies of women and children, as well as violence against women. The Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, estimates that 25,000 people are being prostituted; 15,000 are children.

Normalized prostitution creates two classes of prostituted women: The Good Prostitutes and The Bad Prostitutes. The former follow the guidelines set out by the brothel owner, undergo health checks, act according to an accepted code of ethics and pay taxes. The latter, through her non-compliance, is open to harassment by the police, abuse and violence. Which category do you think most of the women in the downtown east side will fall into?

Legitimated brothels also increase human trafficking, both domestic and international. You only have to look at Canada’s recent Strippergate scandal to know that women in our country are not lining up to work in the sex industry. Inevitably, the market turns to women from poor countries to meet the demand for sex and human trafficking expands its cycle of oppressing even more desperate women, this time from developing countries.

Again, the vulnerable are preyed upon, this time with the complicity of the State. Amsterdam, a notorious destination for sexual predators, recently closed one-third of its red-light district because it had become a magnet for pimps, traffickers and drug dealers. Of the prostituted women in Amsterdam, about 80% are foreign born. Legitimated brothels make it safer for pimps and abusers, but less safe for the women, and in fact all women.

Folks, we have the walking wounded out there being exploited by the very sickness and commodification of women’s bodies that scarred them in the first place. The rhetoric of the ideology of prostitution as “sex work” perpetrates further violence against women because it names systematized sexual exploitation as “work.” Kathleen Barry writes that in prostitution “men buy not a self but a body that performs as a self, and it is a self that conforms to the most harmful, damaging, racist and sexist concepts of women…” Certainly this is not a job, nor a practice we want to perpetuate.

Prostitution is violence, not commerce.


3 Responses to “Safer for Whom? True Harm Reduction for Prostituted Women”

  1. July 13, 2007 at 2:11 am

    Brilliant piece of work – disecting the internal complications and subtle lies of the harm reduction philosophy, and the ideology behind trying to legalize prostitution. I pray for wiley strategies to walk out justice for prostituted persons in Van.
    God speed.

  2. 2 George
    August 2, 2007 at 8:05 pm

    Thanks for your insightful examination of the LIC proposal. I also attened one community session and heard most comments that were promoting safety for children and women involved in prostitution. Opinions need better documentation from sutdies, which you have given good basic reference to.

    Thanks for reinterpreting the 9 word reference in LIC to the single word brothel.

    I hope more concerned people express comments on your atricle and refer it to their community groups.

    Blessings in Serving with Compassion.

  3. November 15, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    The only thing I can truly agree with is that more study is needed, but when we prostitutes give our opinion and our side of the story, do NOT metaphorically pet us on the head and then tut tut about how deluded we are.

    It’s insulting.

    You may not like what we do, nobody said you have to like it. Help those who need/want it.

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