Prostitution: Should it be legalized in Ontario?

by Alyssa Sampson

Nov. 2010

The legality and morality of prostitution has been widely discussed since Ontario Superior Court Judge Susan Himel struck down prohibitions against a number of activities related to prostitution. Alternately hailed or scorned by many as legalizing prostitution, this decision permits prostitutes to “communicate freely with customers on the street, conduct business in their homes or brothels and hire bodyguards and accountants” without fear of criminal charges (Tyler, 2010). While some, including some prostitutes, feel that this decision will make sex work safer, others fear that the legalization of prostitution will lead to the normalization and acceptance of an inherently demeaning transaction: the sexualization and purchase of a woman’s body by a stranger for his own pleasure.[1]

The prostitution debate in newspapers tends to be very rhetorical, a war of words and principles. I decided to examine evidence from academic research as well as the personal stories of women who had participated in prostitution. My methodology is secondary analysis, with some use of additional documents, but my primary focus is on the quantitative experiences and results of prostitution. There are women in prostitution who give opposite accounts of what it is like, whether it is victimizing or empowering, the result of lifelong marginalization or a free choice, and my goal was to determine whether either side is supported by the evidence of academic studies and if there is a possibility that both sides could be true for different women in different situations.

A major challenge in examining evidence was to be aware of potential bias on my part as well as on the part of researchers. For example, the organization Prostitute Research & Education states that their mission is to “abolish the institute of prostitution...” (About Prostitute Research & Education, 2010). Obviously such a mission could call their research into question, whether they might manipulate their results or conduct studies in such a way as to prove that prostitution is demeaning and harmful. However, their methodology acknowledges the risk of bias and outlines steps taken to keep their research objective. For my part, I used a variety of sources rather than rely on one main researcher, and I looked for studies examining different types of prostitution, so my paper includes information on women who prostitute indoors and outdoors, independently and for pimps. I suspected that prostitutes who work on the streets have a very different experience than prostitutes who are employed through an escort agency or strip club. My focus is on women in prostitution, so I have not researched men or children in prostitution, although the majority of female prostitutes begin selling sex before they turn 18 (Farley, Bindel, & Golding, 2009, p.14).

Street-level prostitution is likely the best known form of prostitution in Canada, and it is widely thought to be the most dangerous. Often seen as a “last-resort” for women who face drug addiction, poverty, and a lack of other options for work, prostitutes who work on the streets face extremely high levels of violence. The death rate for women prostitutes is 40 times higher than for the general population (Farley, Lynne, & Cotton, 2005, p.244). In a survey of 100 Vancouver prostitutes, 95% said they would leave prostitution if they could; 90% had been physically assaulted, 78% had been raped, and 72% experienced post traumatic stress disorder (Farley et al., 2005, p.242). The same study revealed housing needs and alcohol or drug addiction as the major factors that kept those women in prostitution - many women cited both as urgent concerns (Farley et al., 2005, p.242).

Interestingly in this study, only 32% of respondents identified a current need for prostitution to be legalized. Twice that number said they needed a home or safe place to stay, and 67% wanted job training (Farley et al., 2005, p.253). In one interview, a woman observed that legalization might offer protection from physical assaults but that “it would not change the verbal abuse and harassment that she knew was intrinsic to prostitution” (Farley et al., 2005, p.250). This corresponds with research done of men who had used prostitutes that found a strong association between the acceptance and use of prostitutes with the belief that a prostitute cannot be raped, that bought women “have no rights in the interaction” (Farley, Bindel, & Golding, 2009, p.13).

Surely there must be a way to protect prostitutes from violent johns. In fact, this was one of the points celebrated when Judge Himel gave her ruling, that prostitutes could now legally hire bodyguards and protect themselves. I have not found any research to examine the efficacy of private security for prostitutes, although for those in the lowest rung of street prostitution where housing and drug use are the strongest priorities, it seems extremely unrealistic for a prostitute to retain a personal bodyguard. A study was done to compare pimp- and non-pimp-controlled prostitutes which found higher levels of customer violence against women working for pimps than independent prostitutes, and that is without considering additional violence women may face from their pimps if they fail to earn enough money (Norton-Hawk, 2004, p.193). A possible reason for this result is that women expose themselves to greater risks in prostitution for a pimp than they otherwise would because they fear abuse from their pimp.

Women who sell sex in massage parlours, strip clubs and escort services are generally thought to be better off than street prostitutes; there is much less research available on “indoor” prostitution, but what little there is indicates that this commonly held belief is wrong. Raphael and Shapiro (2004) did a study to establish levels of violence against prostitutes across several venues with some surprising results. They cite a 2001 study done in the UK that found indoor prostitutes were less likely to experience violence from clients (48% compared to 81% of street prostitutes), although street prostitutes more frequently reported physical attacks, while women indoors were more likely to report attempted rape (p.128). In their own research, however, the same percentage (21%) of prostitutes in escort services as street prostitutes and women who prostituted from their home reported having been raped more than 10 times (p.135).

In the prostitution debate, supporters of legalized prostitution point to the Netherlands as a model for their legal, regulated brothels. This issue was addressed by a study called Big Brothel, an effort to map the indoor sex trade in Britain, where prostitution is currently illegal. In their discussion whether legal prostitution would curb the problems caused by illegal brothels, the writers of that study suggest, “there is a growing body of evidence that legalization [of prostitution] results in the normalization of sexual exploitation and the expansion of criminal networks, by facilitating both legal and underground prostitution, with large numbers of children and vulnerable adults drawn into exploitation” (Bindel & Atkins, 2008, p.10, emphasis my own). This was illustrated by the conviction of six people for human trafficking in the Netherlands the same year that study was published, in a case involving roughly 50 suspects and over 100 women who were subjected to forced breast enlargements, abortions, beatings and tattoos (Associated Press, 2008). One expert commented, “[prostitution] was supposed to be very visible and transparent, and yet behind the facade, horrible things were happening under the nose of the police” (AP, 2008).

There is a strong body of evidence that “prostitution is a sexually exploitive often-violent economic option most often entered into by those with a lengthy history of sexual, racial and economic victimization” (Farley, Lynne, & Cotton, 2005, p.260). However, there is also a vocal side to the prostitution debate that argues it is a woman’s right to sell her body for sex and that it is patriarchal and oppressive to forbid it. B. Sullivan (2003) is one such feminist who argues that prostitution must not be universalized but rather understood in terms of the many different contexts where it takes place. She suggests that despite an intrinsic conflict of power between prostitute and john, the freedom of sex workers could be pursued “by feminists working to establish conditions that support and enable the consensual capacity of sex workers” (p.77). In this view, women should never be coerced into prostitution, but neither should the (patriarchal) state interfere with the free choice of women to sell sex.

This view may seem acceptable to some feminists, but it is radically opposed by feminist A. Dworkin. She avers that “the assumptions of academia... are antithetical to the lives of women who are in prostitution or who have been in prostitution” (Dworkin, 1992, p.1). She rebukes those who condemn some forms of prostitution but argue for the legitimacy of more regulated or “high class” prostitution with the blunt statement that “It does not have to be done the same way in every place to be the same thing” (Dworkin, 1992, p.5). In her view, no woman who was truly free to choose prostitution would ever do so. I agree that a true increase in the consensual capacity of prostitutes would result in fewer prostitutes, not empowered prostitutes as Sullivan suggests.

In my research, the most compelling evidence against Sullivan’s proposal to increase and respect the freedom of women who choose prostitution was the testimony of former escort Natalie McLennan (2009). Her “consensual capacity” was extremely high but deteriorated as a result of her experience as a prostitute::

“I had the best experience you could hope for when selling your body: I was never physically, emotionally or mentally abused. I was well paid and treated to a life of luxury. And even under those circumstances, I suffered from post-traumatic stress... saw my drug use became abuse and then addiction, and finally became suicidal... I still sleepwalk and have nightmares, even after hours of therapy.”

My conclusion after exploring the research is that supporters of legalized prostitution do not have the support of any academic studies I read. Even the appeal to legal brothels in other countries is flawed, since those countries continue to suffer from violence against prostitutes, organized crime and human trafficking (Perrin, 2010). The portrait of prostitution that research paints is of disrespect if not abuse of women who are frequently held captive by addiction, poverty, pimps, or a combination thereof. It is a violent and demeaning trade too often glamorized or downplayed by the media. While it may be conceivable to some that a woman could freely choose to sell sex and experience economic gain without also experiencing physical and emotional harm, this possibility is, so far, limited to the realm of the imagination. Yes there are exceptions to the horrific statistics about violence and abuse, but those exceptions do not build a strong enough case for prostitution to be legalized in Ontario.


References

About Prostitution Research & Education (2010). Prostitution Research and Education. Retrieved November 15, 2010, from http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/about.html

Associated Press (2008). Six get heavy sentences in Dutch human trafficking trial. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2008-07-11-Dutch-human-trafficking_N.htm

Bindel, J., & Atkins, H. (2008). Big Brothel: a study of the off-street sex industry in London. London: POPPY Project, EAVES Housing or Women. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from http://www.scribd.com/doc/33738529/Big-Brothel-Poppy-Project

Dworkin, A. (1992, October). Prostitution and Male Supremacy. Speech presented at the University of Michigan Law School, Ann Arbor, MI. Retrieved November 9, 2010, from http://www.sextrade101.com/docs/articles/article1.pdf

Farley, M., Bindel, J., & Golding, J.M. (2009). Men who buy sex: Who they buy and what they know. Eaves, London and Prostitution Research & Education, San Francisco. Retrieved November 4, 2010, from http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/men_who_buy_sex/000238.html

Farley, M., Lynne, J., & Cotton, A.J. (2005). Prostitution in Vancouver: Violence and the Colonization of First Nations Women. Transcultural Psychiatry, 42(2), 242-271. Retrieved November 2, 2010, from Academic Search Premier EBSCO database.

McLennan, N. (2009, June 19) [Review of the book The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It]. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved November 9, 2010, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/

Norton-Hawk, M. (2004). A Comparison of Pimp- and Non-Pimp-Controlled Women. Violence Against Women, 10(2), 189-194. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from Academic Search Premier EBSCO database.

Perrin, B. (2010, September 30). Sweden’s Fix: Jail the johns.The Globe and Mail. Retrieved November 9, 2010, from http://www.theglobeandmail.com

Raphael, J., & Shapiro, D.L. (2004). Violence in Indoor and Outdoor Prostitution Venues. Violence Against Women, 10(2), 126-139. Retrieved November 6, 2010, from Academic Search Premier EBSCO database.

Sullivan, B. (2003). Trafficking in Women. International Feminist Journal of Politics5(1), 67-91. Retrieved November 7, 2010, from Academic Search Premier EBSCO database.

Tyler, T. (2010, September 28). Prostitution laws struck down. The Toronto Star. Retrieved November 9, 2010, from http://www.thestar.com


[1]I am focusing on female prostitution for this paper, since it is the focus of most debates whether prostitution is empowering or demeaning to women, and this is the idea I wanted to study.