The world’s oldest profession, prostitution, has now been legalized in Canada—well, sort of. Our northern neighbor’s step toward a more open and liberated society is the result of a challenge brought up by an experienced sex worker, Ms. Terri Jean Bedford. In the Canadian Supreme Court case Canada v. Bedford, several laws were struck down that restricted prostitution. The court argued that such laws, pertaining to brothel-keeping and negotiating a sexual encounter, “infringe the … rights of prostitutes by depriving them of security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”
Formally, the old laws will become void within one year, giving the Canadian government time to decide what laws, if any, would be suitable to replace the current statutes. The Canadians may decide, for example, to implement a system similar to the Dutch, where an escort can work in the windows or a brothel—a merchant would simply require a license to do such work just as a vendor obtains a license to sell liquor. Such stipulations would not equate to total legality because if a prostitute were to sell sex without a license and not within a brothel (i.e., an “independent contractor” on the street), such activity would be considered illegal. This is an example of decriminalization, or the elimination of most regulations pertaining to where and how sex can be sold as a commodity.
In the United States, where prostitution is largely illegal, we must look like prudes in the eyes of the global community. I say this because the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) all support the global decriminalization of prostitution. In the collaborative report Prevention and Treatment of HIV and Other Sexually Transmitted Infections for Sex Workers in Low- and Middle-Income Countries, decriminalization of sex work (the principal recommendation) will lead to a decrease in violence and diminish obstacles to health care. Decriminalization, the report claims, will reduce stigma, decrease violence, and lessen barriers to accessing health care. For instance, when law enforcement searches for condoms as evidence for sex work, the incentive to practice safe sex goes down, putting both the customer and thesupplier at risk. There are even some jurisdictions in the United States where if you’re simply suspected (no real proof) of being a sex worker, you can be arrested if condoms are found on you (if you found me on the street with a knife, that doesn’t mean you have the right to suspect that I’m going to hurt someone and arrest me; I may just be on my way to a krav maga class). Widespread condom use is a significant variable in the lessening of the transmission of HIV/AIDS, particularly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
From a moral standpoint, I wholly disagree with someone entering a career in prostitution, and I equally frown at those individuals who purchase sex from a prostitute. The reason is that such activities take something intended to be wholesome and good (sex) but instead achieve sexual gratification through perverse means in the absence of an established loving relationship between two adults. The end result is a moral decay leading to individual decay and a breakdown in interpersonal relations.
That being said, I also don’t believe that my moral beliefs should preclude another adult from making an adult decision. As with all vices, they do not set out to achieve new or exclusive goals but honorable ends through vile means (e.g., malice leading to influence and greed leading to prosperity). All people should be entitled to make their own decisions, whether those decisions are good or bad, and regardless of the lens used to view the decision.
Sex workers are stigmatized all over the world, but it’s not always the sex workers themselves who choose their profession. In many impoverished and oppressive countries, the suppression of women in general puts them at a severe disadvantage, often leaving them with few options. Even in such circumstances, the “benefits” of entering into the field of sex work bares opportunities, but at the expense of death, violence, and perpetual harassment and persecution. Additionally, one must also consider those deplorable, despicable individuals who exploit not only women but also minors in the global multibillion-dollar sex industry that profits very few at the expense of many. Even in those countries where the prostitutes do have options, I am forced to ask myself what would incentivize a person to start doing sex work, whether legal or illegal (in the latter case, all conditions apply, only more severe). After all, there’s the perpetual threat of violence from customers and bosses (pimps), a myriad of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and harassment from law enforcement. To judge someone is easy, but it is difficult to answer why someone would assume all these risks if the alleged benefits aren’t all that overwhelming. Some other facts to consider: if the participant is homeless, has a mental illness, has a history of childhood abuse, or if they engage in sex work for nonmonetary items such as food or shelter. The question that invariably follows from the last circumstance is this: If a subordinate sleeps with a superior for a raise or a promotion, how can that not be considered prostitution and therefore punishable by law? What about as an incentive not to take some adverse action or to persuade a decision maker to change course?
Would making prostitution in every possible way illegal eliminate it? Not at all. As long as there are men on the planet, demand will always be high; and where there is high demand, supply will consistently appear somewhere.
For the following examples, consider only adults and sex workers who have chosen their profession voluntarily for the sole purpose of money.
Strictly from the standpoint of a commercial transaction, prostitution is a victimless “crime.” Party A wants something that Party B has. Party B is willing to sell X. If both parties, through voluntary exchange, agree on a price for X, I wonder, where in secular law does the fantastic dilemma exist? One has to assume, then, that secular law is in part, if not totally, based on a moral objection to the transaction. Since both parties engage in this transaction, then why is there so much more moral condemnation for the sex worker in our society than for the customer who purchases the sex? And if sex is wielded as a means to achieve an end—in this case, money or gratification—where does the moral barometer lie if someone uses the refusal of sex as a means to achieve an end? In both cases, sex is voluntarily exploited on the part of the supplier.
Whatever the Canadians do, only time will tell.
Dr. C.H.E. Sadaphal