Prostitution in Canada: Imagining Alternate Realities

Last night, I was inspired and moved by the powerful, passionate, political voices of three women:renowned legal scholar and anti-prostitution activist Gunilla Ekberg, anti-prostitution activist Trisha Baptie and Sherry Smilie of AWAN, who spoke yesterday at Prostitution and Women’s Equality, calling for the abolition of prostitution in Canada .

I’ll admit that despite the media coverage prostitution gets in Vancouver, in particular when discussing the DTES, the arguments for criminalizing the buying of sex are not something I’m thoroughly familiar with, or used to hearing. Far more time and space is given to those arguing that sex work and the activities surrounding it should be decriminalized in favor of a harm reduction approach (see this earlier post by Meghan Murphy for current legal challenges moving us towards decriminalization).

Thorough discussions of what the abolition of prostitution means are covered here, here and here, and last night’s panel discussion will be aired on the F-Word soon in case you missed it, so I will not delve into the details of this political vision here.

Instead, I am going to tackle three questions Gunilla Ekberg posed to the audience, challenging us to understand that prostitution is violence against women.

Firstly, who are the women used in prostiution?

Second, what is done by men to prostituted women?

Third, what are the effects of prostitution on women in prostiution, and society at large?

Think about these points for a moment, and consider the realities in Canada.

Who are the women used in prostitution?

We know, from collective knowledge and stats like these that women are prostituted in a context of poverty, racism, colonialism, and systemic sexual and physical abuse stemming from a patriarchal society that is tolerant of and complicit in, violence against women. In this context, can it ever be said that a woman is involved in prostitution based on her own free will? The context in which this ‘choice’ has been made cannot be ignored.

What is done by men to prostituted women?

Prostituted women’s bodies are used by men for sex, and that includes a myriad of acts that are humiliating and violent. Prostitution is synonymous with violence. We know this. It’s always lumped into that statement ‘high-risk lifestyle’ –as if it is a lifestyle choice to be at constant risk of violence and death. Prostituted women are beaten, raped, and murdered daily here in Vancouver. This is what is done by men to prostituted women.

What are the effects of prostitution on women in prostitution, and society at large?

Women in prostitution are degraded and devalued, their bodies are abused and trafficked, and they are used by men for pleasure and for profit. When we allow women’s bodies to be purchased and profited from, we perpetuate a patriarchal society that does not value women as equal citizens, a society where violence against women is systemic and alarmingly prevalent.

Examining these three questions, it is pretty clear that prostitution is violent and harmful to women who are directly involved in prostitution and to society in general; it perpetuates inequality between men and women, and contributes to a culture that normalizes violence against women.   Things aren’t going to change though, until we acknowledge that prostitution is violence against women, that men do not have an inherent right to access women’s bodies, and and it’s decriminalization will only serve to push it out of public view.

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7 Comments on “Prostitution in Canada: Imagining Alternate Realities”

  • Meghan Murphy

    My favorite part of this talk was when Ekberg said something along the lines of: I don’t believe one can call themselves feminist and accept prostitution. That one threw people a little haha. She rules.

  • Renay

    The answer to question 1 is: Adult survivors of child sexual abuse, assault, violence. This was proven in Julie Cool’s 2004 study on prostitution in Canada where a cross-section of sex workers male, female, white, non-white and indigenous identified that for women 98% had been sexually abused as girls and for the men working the streets that number was 100%. This was left out of the panel discussion which I was at in Victoria.

  • Renay

    The answer to number two is not so straight forward as you make it out to be…what is done to women/girls in the sex trade in Canada is done as a result of criminalization in part. The stats of violence come from girls on the street, whereas escorts, and massage parlours are quite safe in comparision.

  • Renay

    Number 3 is also too murky, we can only understand the effects in the context of the act being illegal and all that that entails for the women/girls who are caught up in this industry and sub-culture. We must have exit strategies in place and they must have the clean and safe working spaces that all working Canadians are afforded under the labour laws before we can judge the affects. Criminalizing it, adds social stigma and shame where none should exist. This is not to say that I want it legal, I like the Nordic model for now, until we begin to truly address this issues in a holitic and realistic manner.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Hi Renee,

    I’d like to hear more on this idea that criminalization is what causes violence. I don’t believe this to be true. Women are raped and degraded and attacked and abused inside as well as outside. Criminalization does not make men violent, men make that choice all on their own. Let’s give them a little credit here.

  • Robert

    Recently, I watched the movie on human trafficking called “Nefarious” and it relayed a point that prostitution in Sweden was criminalized and backed up by very stiff consequences in prison for violations. Apparently, it has contributed to the increased safety (ie: less violence) in the streets of Stockholm, Sweden. I wonder what would happen if the same was applied here in Canada?

  • Robert

    I would also add that the violations only applied to the men and not to women prostitutes.

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