After writing about punishment as a means of discipline in my last post, an issue practically designed for illustration purposes has dramatically popped up in the news: prostitution—the ubiquitous deviance of the ages. In short, “Ontario's Superior Court of Justice ruled Tuesday the Criminal Code provisions relating to prostitution contribute to the danger faced by sex-trade workers.” What it means is that the laws against running a brothel, against offering or requesting sexual favours for pay have been found to be unconstitutional by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
“Well, I never! What message are we sending to the pimps, johns and hookers of this world?” That’s been the most immediate reaction around the country, alongside the jubilation of what are called “sex-trade workers.” If the ruling passes appeals and becomes law in Ontario, it will wipe out a whole class of what are now criminal offenses and provide some relief for both the police and the courts. Other effects are not known for certain, but one can imagine something similar to the red light district of Amsterdam where prostitutes sit in shop windows in varying degrees of dishabille, selling their services to passersby just like retailers display and sell motorcycles or toasters. No doubt, others are picturing soliciting hookers on every corner and traffic jams of men trying to get at them.
I don’t need to repeat the litany of harms that currently surround the sex trade on the streets and backrooms of our cities. You know them all, from Robert Pickton, to Hell’s Angels, to human smuggling, drug addiction and disease. The right question is probably, “What can be done to end these cycles of greed, exploitation and misery?” The right answer, unfortunately, is not as obvious, although we have plenty of people around who would grasp quickly for a “throw the book at ‘em . . . lock ‘em up and throw away the key” solution. In the age-old fight against prostitution, even a cursory review of our cultural history tells us that punishment regimens have failed.
There are plenty of harmful practices among us, heaven knows, besides prostitution. Smoking, drinking, gambling and overeating come to mind for starters. Thing is, we haven’t criminalized these but have used other means to make them reasonably tolerable. Alcohol production and sale, for instance, was criminalized in Canada and the USA from 1920-1933. “After several years, prohibition became a failure in North America and elsewhere, as bootlegging (rum-running) became widespread and organized crime took control of the distribution of alcohol.” Smoking has been fought as a health issue as opposed to a criminal issue, and clearly, progress has been made to curb this unhealthy habit. As regards overeating and poor eating—often resulting in huge costs to healthcare systems—we have gone only as far as the provision of public information and labeling mandates, and have left the choices up to the individual.
There are more options than criminalization that could be considered in the case of prostitution. It’s clear that whatever we do must make the sale and purchase of sex unattractive to organized crime. Hell’s Angels are not interested in selling underwear, but if we made the wearing of thongs a criminal offense, you can rest assured that organized crime would be selling them, most likely for five hundred dollars a pop, and they’d be shooting each other over thong-peddling turf.
How the application of more original curbs on deviance would work out in the case of prostitution in Canada is unclear. But it’s surely worthy of exploration.
Think about this. Let’s imagine, for a moment, a big-box store of “sin” in the middle of Saskatoon. Here practitioners are trained and registered to provide sexual services in all their manifestations. Here, nurses give heroin injections and retailers sell marijuana at prices set by the marketplace. In the country, farmers grow poppies and marijuana alongside wheat and oats until surpluses drive the prices down, when they probably go back to peas and barley.
The individual chooses whether or not to shop in this “sin” store, just as he does when looking for entertainment: ball game, movie or night club? All participants in the trade are qualified and evaluated, just like architects, teachers and plumbers are.
There’d still be laws to be obeyed, of course. Operating as a sex practitioner without a license would be a punishable crime, just like a charlatan practicing medicine is subject to penalties. Trading in sex or drugs without licensing and inspection would similarly remain a crime. The main advantageous effect of decriminalization would be that the prices would fall since supply could easily be made to exceed demand and the incentives to organized crime would vanish. An added advantage would be that sex workers would have to be fit, disease-free, subject to inspection.
One of the saddest aspects of the current sex industry is the exploitation of women, girls, men, boys, even children by greedy, ruthless “entrepreneurs.” We have a chance at reversing these abominations only if our models of correction change. Crassly put, if a person becomes addicted to heroin and its price is high, selling his or her body to feed the addiction is inevitable. If he/she can get a fix for $12.00 in a clinic, let’s say, a job at the local MacDonald’s might be just the ticket, and professionals would have access to the addict along with a possibility of influencing him or her with a health-based, psychological or spiritual rehabilitation.
But the Harper government will appeal the court ruling. They’re not likely to seize this moment as an opportunity for creativity and broad discussion. Conservatives have trouble thinking outside the box on this issue, especially when garnering votes in the next election is the uppermost consideration.