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De-criminalize sex work…

November 17, 2014

Came across this interesting article today proclaiming the glories of the Swedish laws on prostitution; laws, which the article claims, has “reduced” prostitution significantly in Sweden.

On the surface of it, there are many good things about this overall approach to “dealing” with prostitution. The new laws brought in better education of police and the public; put the criminal onus on the john, rather than on the sex worker; and acknowledged that for the most part prostitution has been really about the issue of violence against women.

But it also leaves a great deal undone, and unsaid.

First of all, Sweden’s general attitude about women and their place in society is so much better than in North America. They have better child care options, better health care, better education system, better addiction and mental health support, more equal pay, and more state-supported social security.

Right off the bat most women in Sweden have many more “socially productive” options ingrained into them while they are growing up. That, in itself, takes care of a great deal of women who would be otherwise economically and/or socially marginalized; who may not have otherwise had “middle-class career options”.

But the Swedish laws are still incomplete in a number of other ways.

First, and most importantly, it still criminalizes sex work – which therefore, like all criminal behaviour – simply drives sex work further underground. Into a very dark place.

And this is the underground world in which I do my “social work” and have much experience in what I talk about. It is the most marginalized girls, boys, and women in our society who do the dirty work of the “criminalized” version of hardcore prostitution.

That Other world of the the high-end sex workers – the “escorts” – who make $2000 a night and, as a result, can work as little or as much as they want – even pick and choose their johns – who can say that they aren’t victims – and the sex workers who enjoy and get off on what they do, and willingly make a career out of it – these are not the targets of these laws.

It’s the 16 and 17, and 18, and 19 and 20-year-old drug addicts, and the girls who have been abused and who also happen to come from the “low end” of town – and the low-end pimp joints, and the street walkers who make our downtowns look bad – these are the women who just get driven deeper into the underground when prostitution (sex work) laws continue to criminalize behaviour.


The best way – the most honest way – to deal with sex work? is to de-criminalize the entire industry. Allow women to claim their income on their taxes, have access to regular supportive health care, unionize, and do all the other regular things regular middle-income people get to do in our society.

The sex-drive – that fundamental human impulse – is not going away (despite the pollution, the estrogen-laced tap water, and all the Freudian analysis) ; sex work is not going away.

There was a time in this country – at least in the big cities – when our Public Health initiatives started moving in the direction of empowering sex workers.

Harm reduction was all the rage back then (“oh, the ’80’s…and ’90’s…”), and through a harm reduction approach a number of social issues were constructively addressed. Crime rates began to fall. Community-based addiction services starting making dents into neighbourhood problems. We educated the public on mental health issues. And the police turned their heads to the sex ads, knowing that the “escort industry” got a lot of women off the streets (and so everyone – the politicians most especially – were happy!).

But now we have had a decade of political and social conservatism backslide and so-called “progress” approaches to dealing with social ills has fallen back into the quagmire of Law and Order ideologies, and the biblical notions of an-eye-for-an-eye and a tooth for a tooth mentality.


We are far, very far I think, from decriminalizing sex work in Canada. And not especially under a Conservative Government. (Although I’d pretty much guarantee that no political party would legalize sex work.)

When the Supreme Court said that it was illegal to charge prostitutes, Harper simply paid dodge-ball with the judges and criminalized the johns instead.

Sure, this will further clean up the “appearance” of prostitution – statistically speaking – but it will do absolutely nothing for all those women who will now be strolling the shadows of empty factory parking lots in the dead of night.


One Comment leave one →
  1. S.J. Hines permalink*
    November 17, 2014 6:10 pm

    related article from today’s CBC…

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