Saturday, October 17, 2009

The world's second oldest profession!

A prostitute in Amsterdam's red light district. The debate around legalizing the sex trade rages in many countries around the world, including Canada. (Anoek de Groot/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the latest battlegrounds for the highly charged issue of prostitution - is it violence, is it a job? - is Britain, home to an estimated 80,000 sex workers, and an untold number of johns.

Horrified by the 2006 murders of five women who sold sex for a living, legislators and activists are debating how government should be controlling the age-old profession. Advocates fall into two camps: those who want to follow Sweden's lead and ban the purchase of sex, and those who say decriminalizing it, like New Zealand, is the right move.

In Canada, the current debate revolves around striking provisions that ban solicitation, brothels and living off the avails of prostitution. Three sex workers are challenging the constitutionality of legislation they say contradicts itself, and prevents them from taking simple steps to protect themselves while selling sex, which is legal. The government's position is that prostitution is unsafe no matter where it takes place, and striking laws will only make that worse. (emphasis ours)

"There is a line," said Norma Ramos, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking Women, which takes a hard line against legalizing prostitution and categorically rejects the notion that it is just work.

"You don't create a class of human beings that are available for use and abuse," said Ms. Ramos, based in New York, who travels the world, promoting the Swedish model because she says it is a human-rights based approach. "They found violence, where others find choice."

Those in the other camp also talk about rights - the rights of sex workers who want to be safe while earning a living.

Sex workers in New Zealand have more choices since decriminalization, said Catherine Healy, with the New Zealand Prostitutes Coaltion. "While not endorsing or morally sanctioning prostitution or its use," the New Zealand government says its laws aim "to create a framework that: (a) safeguards the human rights of sex workers and protects them from exploitation; (b) promotes the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers; (c) is conducive to public health; (d) prohibits the use in prostitution of persons under 18 years of age."

Sex houses are legal, although owners will be penalized if they fail to ensure that the working conditions are safe, or if they hire under-age escorts.

This has empowered workers, said Ms. Healy, who don't have to put up with exploitative operators, and who also are no longer entrapped in a profession that used to brand them with a criminal record.

In Sweden, prostitution is not work; its laws are premised on the fact that prostitution is only ever exploitation and male sexual violence against women and children. It considers the sex trade and human trafficking as intrinsically linked, reasoning that trafficking rings are set up to feed the sex trade.

The government set out to achieve social equality of girls and women with its 1999 law that punishes anyone caught buying sex - not selling it - with a fine or up to six months in jail.

It is critical to "take back the culture from pornographic values that eroticize the degradation of women," said Ms. Ramos, and you do that by creating laws that send a clear message to men that women cannot be bought or sold.

Lawyer Gunilla Ekberg lobbied for the law, and in a 2004 review wrote that street prostitution had decreased by 30-50%, although critics question the data, saying it is impossible to know how many women have simply moved their street prostitution indoors.

Swedish feminist and author Petra Ostergren conducted interviews with sex trade workers before and after the law, and said many are now more fearful of their clients and getting caught than they were before the laws were changed.

There is a new group of opponents, she said, who want the law abolished because it allows the state to control women's bodies.

"The law itself is not really relevant for sex workers and their clients. They carry on," she said, with many elite call girls reveling in the fact that they can now charge more money for an illicit activity.

"We, the Swedes, we pride ourselves as being the moral consciousness of the world," said Ms. Ostergren, who believes the prostitution laws are a way to strengthen the national identity of "being good or better than other countries." Norway and Iceland have followed suit.

In New Zealand, religious groups and radical feminists opposed decriminalization, and some people asked questions after three prostitutes were murdered. Two of those cases have been solved, said Ms. Healy, in part thanks to the willingness of prostitutes to come forward with information now that their work is no longer criminal.

Cari Mitchell, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, says the laws in the U.K., similar to those on the books in Canada, are draconian enough, and nothing the government is now promoting - such as making it illegal to buy sex from someone who is forced or threatened - will stem the flow of women who grapple with homelessness, drugs, domestic violence and, especially, debt.

National Post


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