The Price Of Sex
Photo Credit: photo by Evgenia Mikhaylova
On a recent Friday morning, there were 27 women or girls in the Saskatoon area advertising their services in the adult section of an online classified page. Some are clearly written by those whose first language is not English. Some are sexually explicit, while some are cutesy and use childlike, ideographic punctuation marks. Some, disconcertingly, manage to be both.
This website doesn’t verify age, so the real age of a girl in any given ad without clear photographs (and even that doesn’t really help) is anyone’s guess.
That type of lack of regulation is partly why the City now has bylaws requiring licences from providers. But what do the new requirements mean for the girls in the industry, the people who buy sex, and the national debate over prostitution?
First off, prostitution isn’t illegal in Canada. Instead, the entire sex trade is quasi-legal: it’s not illegal to buy or sell sexual services, but it’s illegal to operate a brothel or bawdy-house; it’s illegal to pimp, procure, or live off the avails of prostitution. It’s also illegal to communicate in public (that includes a vehicle) for the purposes of prostitution. And of course, any prostitution involving minors is unequivocally illegal and covered by several sections of the Criminal Code.
The law covering minors is clearly a no-brainer, but the other three basic provisions, while designed to mitigate the trade’s most harmful effects, have all been challenged in court on the basis that they can put sex trade workers in more danger.
For example, the Ontario Superior Court decided in 2010 that being able to communicate with clients is essential for the safety of sex trade workers, since being able to talk and bargain gives prostitutes an important opportunity to assess potentially violent clients.
This year, a panel of judges presiding over Ontario’s top court further decided that prostitutes should be able to work indoors (in brothels for example), and hire employees such as bodyguards. But, they also ruled that open solicitation should remain illegal.
The decision is expected to be challenged by the federal government at the Supreme Court of Canada.
Here in Saskatoon, a new adult services zoning bylaw officially came into effect July 1st, after a bylaw approved earlier in the year required providers to carry a licence.
While ignoring street prostitution, the bylaws target escort services, private non-therapeutic massage parlours, private lingerie models and even striptease performers. Many individuals and establishments were already operating with standard business licences.
So: why create a special bylaw?
“Now we have the authority to go to the hotel room, for example, and ask [sex trade workers] for a licence. The bylaw will allow us to identify people under the age of 18 — it gives us a starting point. We phone up a girl, arrange a date with her, have a conversation, and maybe start an investigation,” explains Sgt. Rhonda Ellingboe of the Saskatoon Police Service’s vice unit.
It’s meant to give the police more tools to investigate the industry. For example, it’s rare for adult service workers to report violent johns to the police, “in fear of being charged for being a bawdy house or living off the avails. I’m hoping that they will report when they get robbed, or have a bad date, [because the new bylaws will] open up a line of communication,” says Ellingboe.
Charging pimps under the bawdy house or avails provisions is difficult, because you have to find evidence of financial transactions. “It’s a cash-basedindustry,” says Ellingboe. Women are often reluctant to testify against their boyfriends, husbands, or close associates, and “men using the service don’t want to testify either.”
It’s also very complicated to lay charges in situations of exploitation. “It’s been done, but it’s not easy — not like an assault charge with [clear evidence such as] bruises,” says Ellingboe.
There are also plenty of legal loopholes that allow people to shirk the intent of sex trade laws.
“If it’s a room, and not a public place, presuming the prostitute is over 18, you could [buy and sell sexual services]. By the same rule, you can phone an escort agency, and ‘arrange a date,’” says Saskatoon criminal defence attorney Bill Roe.
No matter how explicit an online ad might be, there’s a perceived privacy when it comes to soliciting sex on the Internet. “I’ve never seen criminal charges related to prostitution arranged over the Internet,” says Roe. Neither has Sgt. Ellingboe.
Beyond the main issue of morality, the debate around prostitution is fraught with practical considerations. When the zoning amendment was under debate at City Council, some were inspired to speak up — including Cecilia Forsyth, National President of REAL Women of Canada. Her group is one of many in Canada that advocate for the full criminalization of prostitution. Still, she says, “we support the zoning bylaw in principle because it keeps adult service providers away from schools, parks, residential or recreational facilities, and we agree with that purpose.” She also called for a strong police presence in the area.
Ty McKenzie, Pastor at Lawson Heights Alliance Church, also spoke at City Council. He endorsed the zoning requirements, but still had some rhetorical questions: “What about the men? Would we do the same thing for the clients? We’re talking about zoning for businesses [at which] employees require a licence… Should not every john have a licence to prove that he’s clean, that he’s not a sexual offender, that he doesn’t have a history of pedophilia?”
It’s a bloody good question. This de facto legal bias in favour of male customers is precisely why many former prostitutes are calling for a fundamental shift in sex trade legislation.
“The charter does not guarantee men a right to the prostitution of women,” the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution points out. In other words, the problem isn’t the woman standing on the street corner; the problem is the john soliciting sex from her.
Many groups, including Women’s Coalition, point to the Nordic model, which focuses on criminalizing customers, traffickers, recruiters and pimps, rather than workers. In Sweden, Norway and Iceland it’s illegal to buy sex, but not to sell it. Research suggests that under the Nordic model, male customers are discouraged from assaulting or robbing a working woman, and that organized crime has taken a hit. But the state continues to overlook the social needs of those who enter the industry, and workers trying to exit the trade still don’t have adequate support, critics say.
Prevention and rehabilitation are likewise just as imperative here in Canada. “It’s not that impossible to get women out of the industry. It’s just a matter of priority and tolerance,” says Hilla Kerner, who has seven years of experience at Canada’s oldest women’s shelter, the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. “Many women who have been damaged by the industry need to regain skills for coping in the mainstream world. They need support networks and genuine alternatives in order to exit the industry, including child care, job training, employment plans and access to housing,” she says.
So, should we be cracking down and refusing business licences?
“Not without offering a genuine alternative for women,” says Kerner. “The women in this trade are the poorest ones — they have no political voice. Some partial drop-in programs aren’t going to cut it. These young women deserve better from the state, from the province, and from municipalities. Instead, these governments cater to people with luxurious lifestyles and means — they build things such as multimillion dollar sports facilities that need millions of dollars in maintenance every year.”
Bylaws that focus on supply, but not demand, exist “just to numb the public conscience,” says Kerner.
“Instead, they should fight for meaningful improvement for the lives of women who are forced into prostitution, instead of entrenching and normalizing [the idea of] women being held hostage. Treating massage parlours and brothels as economic entrepreneurships is a betrayal by the City of the women who resort to the sex trade.”
“The Cityis going to be benefiting economically from the exploitation of women,” Kerner says.
Many other cities in Canada already require adult service licences, including Winnipeg, Calgary, and Edmonton. (In some cases, their licences are significantly more expensive than in Saskatoon.) Saskatoon’s fee “reflects the cost of enforcing these licences. We wanted girls to licence, not to make the cost prohibitive,” says Ellingboe.
“We’re trying to help girls under 18 [from getting into] this business. As soon as we find someone involved or becoming involved, we have a Sexual Exploitation Intervention Committee, supported by organizations such as EGADZ, Mental Health and Addictions Services, the Saskatoon School Board, and the Ministry of Social Services,” explains Ellingboe. The Police Service also has two full time employees who are dedicated to helping girls exit the sex trade, setting up housing and treatment and supporting basic needs.
Some sex trade workersare struggling with serious drug addictions, and “the place for them is not the criminal justice system,” says Kerner.
True, says Ellinboe — but at the same time, “a lot of the girls involved in the sex trade say it takes them being charged in order to get out of the cycle, so I don’t know that decriminalizing the workers will solve the problem. We offer them help the day they’re arrested, [but] it has to be their choice.”
Trisha Baptie began working as a sex trade worker when she was 13, and worked in Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside. She escaped when she was 28, but not without emotional trauma and health issues directly related to the industry. Baptie believes it’s possible to abolish prostitution, since the roots of prostitution are in poverty, racism and men’s assumptions that they’re entitled to buy women for sex. Now, she works as a journalist, educator, and advocate with EVE, formerly Exploited Voices now Educating.
Baptie has seen the positive effect of the Nordic model working as a journalist in Sweden. She wants to see women decriminalized and “responsibility put with those who profit, and hopefully create a culture in which women don’t have to sell sex.”
She points to a recent study called Men Who Buy Sex: Who They Buy and What They Know. For it, researchers interviewed men in the UK who had bought sex from women. According to the study, “men’s biological imperative” or “men’s basic rights as consumers to buy sex” were at the root of why men said they bought sex. Many participants believed that “once he pays, the customer is entitled to engage in any act he chooses with the woman he buys.” The concept of rape simply does not apply to women in prostitution, they argued. And, if prostitution didn’t exist, some men believed they would be more likely to rape women who were not prostitutes. (Instead, statistics show that rape rates are actually higher in places that legalize prostitution, such as Nevada.)
Some who bought sex presumed that women in the industry weren’t being coerced by a pimp or trafficker, despite witnessing clear evidence to the contrary. Others knew that women were being lured, tricked or trafficked, but that awareness didn’t affect their decision to buy sex.
The study also concluded that indoor prostitutionis no safer than street prostitution.
“You can’t eliminate the harm by working indoors. Every joint has a monitor and a panic button on the outside. As soon as you see police, you’re out the back door,” Baptie says.
So, what would deter these men? Being added to a sex offender registry, put in prison, or publicly exposed, the study reports. The least effective deterrent, according to this and other studies, would be mandatory education without the threat of prison.
Bummer — because guess what deterrent we have in Saskatoon?
“Because it is a summary offence, men charged are not fingerprinted or photographed,” says Ellingboe. Repeat offenders could have their car impounded or their licence suspended, but “the majority of men who are charged with that offence go to john school, which involves a day of education,” says Ellingboe.
Yipes. A whole day! Hope nobody misses the big game…
(You can also be fined $5,000 under The Highway Traffic Act if you drive or park, without a good reason, in an area that is frequented by sex trade workers.)
As Kerner suggests, the justice system is stacked against women. “Most johns will never see a judge. Most women in prostitution will. Many prostitutes might be arrested and released, but because their lives are so unmanageable, they can’t appear in court — so they’ll have many more charges,” says Kerner. This affects everything from job prospects to child custody.
Baptie points to the City of Edmonton as one that allocates police resources well. They “go after the demand and generally leave the women alone,” says Baptie.
“Who are we offering up to make sure that prostitution is continuing? It’s usually those with some kind of disadvantage — whether economic, racial, or intellectual. Aboriginal women have been very clear that they want the Nordic model here in Canada. Prostitution [in Canada] has only existed since [European] contact, and [aboriginal women] are the ones being murdered in droves. There is no reason why you should have to purchase sex. It’s not an enshrined right. We live in an age where there are rape laws and domestic violence laws. We need prostitution laws that stand up to johns and err on the side of women’s dignity and women’s safety,” says Baptie.
Tough to argue with that.