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The Ontario Superior Court struck down prostitution laws yesterday which decriminalized many of the restrictions around sex work and paved the way for other provinces to do the same thing.

It is generally seen as a progressive move that will allow sex workers to ply their trade in safer and more secure conditions.

I was interested to read my own views on prostitution from my archives: this is a column that was written 20 years ago, in early 1990. I have edited it slightly and added some links.

As many feminists do, I have mixed feelings around the whole issue of prostitution. I think it is the ultimate form of women’s oppression and I hate the thought of any woman being forced into it to make her living or feed her children.

Not only that, I reject many of the myths about prostitution. I don’t accept that very many women work as prostitutes by choice; I think, rather, it’s a severe lack of choice. I remind people constantly that life for most women who work as prostitutes bears no resemblance to the life of Jane Fonda’s character in Klute – the life of the so-called high-class call girl. Instead, most girls and women who work as prostitutes live a dangerous, often-violent life, under male control, on the edge of male-made laws.

Some of these same doubts and mixed feelings are expressed in an article by Toronto feminist Susan Cole in a recent issue of the feminist newspaper Broadside. Susan has found herself in a conflicting position on occasion in conversation with women who work as prostitutes because she wants to believe them when they say prostitution is “just another job, just another skill – like typing” and yet her own instincts react strongly against the idea of women selling sex for a living.

In fact, Susan Cole has often been singled out by prostitutes’ rights groups as a personal whipping post, and has been assured that most women working as prostitutes simply want to be left alone to do their work in peace and safety and don’t want to hear theories of male dominance and patriarchy.

So Susan has recently come to a new conclusion about these conflicts. She’s decided that only ex-prostitutes can bridge the gap between “sex-critical feminists and prostitutes’ rights groups.” She decided this after meeting a representative of – in what must be THE acronym of the year – WHISPER: Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt. This is what the representative, Sarah Wynter, ex-prostitute, said:

We started to organize because the cultural mythology didn’t reflect the reality of our lives. I’m referring to the line that prostitution is a free choice; that it can be decontextualized from the patriarchal society we live in; that it can be fixed by unionizing it, legalizing, decriminalizing it; that the relationship between a pimp and a prostitute is a love relationship; that prostitutes are on the cutting edge of women’s sexual liberation and that prostitutes control tricks and rates of pay…

I was sold into prostitution and control of my life was taken away from me. I learned that prostitution is an abusive institution that benefits men. The pimp gets money, the john gets sexual gratification. Prostitution gives men access to women’s and children’s sexuality limited only by their ability to pay. I’ve yet to meet a prostitute who hasn’t experienced some kind of abuse. That’s why we founded WHISPER, because we know that women whisper about the things that happen to them.

At Stepping Stone in Halifax, women didn’t have to whisper. Stepping Stone is the agency set up a few years ago to support, help, and counsel women who work as prostitutes. It, in turn, was supported by both women who work as prostitutes and women who used to work as prostitutes.

I’m still confused about where I stand on prostitution, but I too vigorously support Stepping Stone. Since its inception, it has had to struggle and fight for every penny of government support – as do most agencies that exist to help women and children – and it’s now in danger of closing its doors as the governments turn their backs.

It’s nothing short of outrageous. Male politicians – provincial and municipal this time – pay lip service to caring about the safety of women and children. In fact, where prostitution is concerned, they care about only one thing: that it be kept out of sight so “respectable” citizens won’t be offended.

These men who run our society are responsible for the economic conditions that force girls and women into prostitution. They’re the ones who administer our woefully inadequate safety net which somehow, allows women and children to fall through and face either hunger and eviction or a job on the streets.

The refusal to fund Stepping Stone is just another in the long list of callous acts that can be pinned on these cold, uncaring governments.

Stepping Stone was founded in 1987 and it continues to do its work in Halifax. It has reacted to this week’s decision by the Ontario Superior Court.

My new favourite television show is Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I watched a few episodes in its early seasons when it was being shown on one of the commercial channels. The strong language was all bleeped and I found it almost impossible to follow — certainly not possible to enjoy. My impression was that this is a show that is almost completely made up of bad words and I lost interest. (I don’t really mind strong language in a program but if it’s every second word, it’s just tedious. Trailer Park Boys, I’m looking at you.)

I have long been a fan — and a self-proclaimed expert — of Seinfeld. Most days, I watch it more than once; sometimes, I watch the same episode more than once in the same day. I don’t know why — I know most of the lines by heart at this point — but I never seem to get tired of it. I can answer all the trivia quiz questions and in fact, I think I could make up a few quizzes myself.

Last year, I read somewhere that the Seinfeld cast would be guests on Curb Your Enthusiasm doing a quasi-reunion show. I pretty well had to see that so we subscribed to HBO Canada and I became a dedicated watcher of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (A little sidebar: The language is raunchy but not unlike what you’d hear in most social circles and not nearly as tiresome as Trailer Park Boys – or the movies my teenage son and his friends watch. My conclusion: The bleeping gives a false impression and makes the language sound more offensive than it really is.)

Somewhere along the way, as I watched, I developed an intense fascination — bordering on a harmless obsession — with Larry David, the show’s star and creator.

Larry David
Larry David

I had seen the name “Larry David” for years, at the beginning of every Seinfeld episode as co-creator, and at the end — during the first seven seasons — as executive producer. I was vaguely aware of the parts he played as the voice of New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, as Frank Costanza’s lawyer, as a news vendor. I knew that he was considered to be the person that George Costanza’s character was based on.

And that was about it.

Once my obsession developed, I read everything I could find about him, I watched countless interviews and clips from talk shows on YouTube, I checked him out on news reports every day. I was relieved and quite pleased to learn that he’s a pretty nice guy — intelligent, kind, compassionate and, of course, funny.

I liked it when I heard that when he was doing stand-up in the comedy clubs, all the other comics who were in the club would gather to hear him do his act. He didn’t really like the audience most of the time — he likes undivided attention and patrons in a comedy club are drinking alcohol and often distracted. One night, he came out, looked slowly around at everyone, said, “Never mind,” and walked off.

Knowing everything I’ve learned about him has changed the way I watch — the way I see — Seinfeld and has given it a whole new life.

Larry David plays a version of himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm, as a multi-millionaire writer/co-creator of the most acclaimed sitcom in television history — which he is. The episodes are unscripted with each of the characters — some of them playing themselves, others playing a role — being given an outline of what the situation is and they play it off the tops of their heads. He is described in this part as the “reigning curmudgeon of television.” He is a curmudgeon but it’s more complicated than that. He says and does outrageous things. Some of what happens in Curb is truly cringe-worthy.

And yet, he usually seems so innocent and vulnerable that it’s hard to hold the outrageousness against him. If he asks a supremely insensitive question, it doesn’t seem that he’s mean or malicious — just that he really wants to know the answer. The answer often annoys him terribly and he expresses his annoyance honestly and openly and quite often, embarrassingly.

I don’t know why this should be so funny but it is. It makes me laugh out loud and I assure you, things that are embarrassing and humiliating and cringe-worthy are not my usual sources of amusement. It’s just something about Larry.

You can read as much about him as I have — this piece from the New Yorker‘s archives is really interesting and you can watch interview after interview and lots of clips from the show on YouTube. This is the first of a series of interviews about the show and the characters and their methods. They’re interesting and entertaining.

An eighth season of 10 episodes is in production now and will be available on HBO in 2011.

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