The proposal for the legalization of prostitution and the establishment of co-op brothels for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver has sparked a heated debate. Although the goal of these brothels is to improve the safety and security of sex workers, legalizing prostitution is not adequate to ensure the safety of sex workers. Rather, it will encourage the systemic and oppressive values and practices prostitution is rooted in, and will only increase the safety of sex-trade profiteers.
Shortly after the proposal was tabled, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter- organizations that aim to protect women from violence- held a panel to denounce the move, as they believed it would only promote prostitution. One panelist argued that legalized prostitution would not reduce the harm or trauma inflicted on women in the sex trade. Furthermore, the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN) issued a statement saying,
We hold that legalizing prostitution in Vancouver will not make it safer for those prostituted, but will merely increase their numbers.
The main criticism against the proposition is that it will not ensure the safety of sex workers but, instead, will promote human trafficking, pushing more vulnerable women into the sex trade. Recent research shows that over 90% of women who are in the sex trade in Canada are not there voluntarily, they have become sex workers due to trafficking, drug abuse and other social problems. Drawing on the experience of Germany, Janet Bagnall of the Montreal Gazette highlighted how during the 2006 World Cup, “as many as 40,000 women and children were trafficked into Germany to service the tens of thousands of fans at the soccer championship.” AWAN also underlined how human trafficking increased by 95% before the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
The demographics of sex workers also raise important questions regarding the legacy of colonialism and the overrepresentation of Native women in prostitution. In their article, "Prostitution in Vancouver: Violence and the Colonization of First Nation Women," by Melissa Farley, Jacqueline Lynne and Ann J. Cotton, out of 100 women that are prostitutes in Vancouver were interviewed, 52% were First Nations women. This is striking when First Nations people constitute only 2% of Vancouver’s population. Their survey also found that 82% of the women reported being abused sexually as children, 90% were assaulted physically in prostitution, 76% were raped by their customers, 72% qualified for post-traumatic stress disorder, and 86% reported being presently homeless or being homeless in the past.
In Jackie Lynne’s Colonialism and the Sexual Exploitation of Canada’s First Nation Women, she examines how colonization has created an environment that has facilitated the sexual commoditization of First Nations women. The experience of marginalization, poverty, diminished status in society, and sexual abuse in catastrophic proportions makes First Nations children prone to becoming victims of the sex industry.
AWAN also criticized the legalization of brothels for perpetuating the oppression of women and effectively legitimizing the forms of abuse that lead women into prostitution. Their statement emphasized how the normalization of prostitution would lead to the decriminalization of johns and pimps, making pimps and traffickers “legitimate entrepreneurs.” They went on to say, “We refuse to be commodities in the so-called ‘sex industry’ or offer up our sisters and daughters to be used as disposable objects for sex.”
In the decriminalization of prostitution, “who decides?” becomes the most important question. In the same survey quoted above, 95% of the women interviewed wanted to get out of prostitution and only 32% wanted prostitution legalized. It is the duty of the policy-makers to protect these vulnerable women from the profiteers of human trafficking and the sex trade.
Instead of legalizing the sexual commoditization of women, Canada needs to focus on healing the wounds of the sex trade’s victims and prevent more women from going through the same trauma. A detailed examination of the social structures, systematic values, and government policies that exacerbate the sex trade is an essential first step. This effort has to be followed-up by an increase in the resources devoted to address the factors that oppress and force women into prostitution, and to increase their socio-economic status. Canada can do better than legalizing prostitution- it must help marginalized women to make a living without putting their mental or physical selves at risk.
Ruth Masliyah is a social worker in Montreal.