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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.

One Response

  1. I’m not confused about where I stand on prostitution. I don’t think any little girl dreams of being a prostitute. Prostitutes, like members of all other groups, are not the same. Different forces may have been in play to put them in the vocation but it is hard to imagine any of them being happy stories.
    That said, clearly society ought to do everything it can to protect all people. Most liberals seem to know the war on drugs is an obvious loser. Drugs should be dealt with as a health issue, not a legal issue. From the prostitute’s side of that vocation, society ought to deal with it as a health and safety issue for the prostitutes.
    From my perspective, only a criminal lunatic could and would force women into sex and prostitution. While I can feel sorry for a person whose nature and nurture brings him to that kind of behaviour, society must deal so firmly with them that they will either never contemplate recidivism or never again be among us.
    The point is that, while we do not like the forces that bring women into prostitution, that in no way excuses us from dealing with their safety in ways that are useful to them.
    Society has not been as effective as we would like in dealing with domestic violence.
    We need to continue to seek victim-centric approaches toward both of those issues.
    Making the victims criminals is not the answer.

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