Let’s get rid of laws that punish the victims By: Kelly Gorkoff 3/09/2009 1:00 AM

Slain prostitutes, unsolved sex murders, missing aboriginal women — this is old news that is being addressed using even older methods. What is curious to me as someone who has studied prostitution for more than 10 years is the tired, superficial analysis that these horrible killings have produced. Judging the effect of past government inquiries such as the Aboriginal Justice and the Lavoie inquiries, I have little faith in government inquests. Tinkering with the system that criminalizes prostitution will get us nowhere. And the search for the elusive serial killer cannot fix what is most basically wrong. Research, mine included, has consistently revealed that violence is a daily occurrence in the lives of prostitutes. As such, the serial killer is a scapegoat for every john who has taken it upon himself to assume sex-trade workers are inhuman, undignified individuals. And there are many. Sex-trade workers are beaten daily with fists and weapons including beer bottles, knives and guns. Very few prostitutes said they reported the violence for fear of prosecution themselves. Understandably so: Although clients and workers are equally arrested under the communicating provision of the Canadian Criminal Code, 92 per cent of prostitutes receive jail time, but only five per cent of clients do. Curiously, the worst type of violence many women in my study discussed was not physical violence from clients but moral violence and social stigma from society at large. They are called names, have pennies thrown at them, threatened, and, upon complaint, are not regarded as victims of crime by law enforcement. Further, many report being denied access to apartments, mortgages and even health care. I say let’s go big or go home. If any other worker was killed by their client, we would change the work environment to protect the worker. For prostitution, real change demands decriminalization and regulation of the sex trade. The interesting dichotomy here is that prostitutes are presented as either victims or criminals, but rarely as workers. What morality is holding us back from conceptualizing prostitution as a legitimate form of work? I contend that civil society and the law contribute to prostitution as a social problem. While some aspects of prostitution are socially problematic, others are not. Rather, prostitution is a viable option for some women, many of whom are marginalized by race. Despite this reality, prostitution has a curious and contradictory place in our cultural consciousness and in our legal system. Some tolerate it, others degrade it and still others support it. The public tolerates it, but not in their neighbourhood, and the federal government has chosen to continue to criminalize the actions of prostitutes yet precariously suggests they are victims of social inequality. Huh? For instance the 2006 parliamentary solicitation law review committee recommended (with support from the NDP, Liberals, and Bloc) that prostitution be decriminalized in order to assist and protect prostitutes. Yet the Conservative government contradictorily argued that although prostitutes are victims, the act of communication for the purposes of prostitution should remain a criminal act. Is there any other realm where we criminalize victims? Instead, the Harper government suggested focusing on programs to support prostitutes who choose to leave the street but at the same time cut funding to women’s groups, including those that fund research and exit programs (such as Status of Women Canada and the National Association of Women and the Law). The logic of this is baffling. Most research concurs that continuing to criminalize prostitution leaves sex-trade workers at risk, pushing women into unsafe working conditions, and leaves them vulnerable to violence. Thus the public and the law impose a punitive and a moral weight that are equally damaging to sex-trade workers. Why do we deem degradation a necessary punishment for what is inherently a victimless crime? The law forbids discrimination, violence and abuse — yet, it precariously places prostitutes in the vulnerable position to experience nothing but. It does not benefit, support, or keep safe the bodies or souls of sex-trade workers. If the law reflects consensus in society, the issue of prostitution is a bigger problem than we think. Kelly Gorkoff is an instructor at the University of Winnipeg’s department of criminal justice.


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