Le Québécois Libre, February 15, 2010, No 275.
I confess I was shocked—shocked!—when I found out recently that the Olympic Games are not all about wholesome, good, clean family fun. You see, as it turns out, in addition to the thousands of athletes and hundreds of thousands of spectators expected to descend on the city over the next two weeks, Vancouver will also play host to a fair number of visiting sex trade workers.
For some, the very presence of prostitution tarnishes the golden image of the international sporting event. The Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace, a group of Catholic Bishops, recently released a letter worrying about systems “often put in place to satisfy the demand for paid sex” at major sporting events, and denouncing “human trafficking in all its forms.” A coalition of women’s groups, academics and politicians calling itself The Citizens Summit Against Sex Slavery, made the news by giving the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee and the B.C. and Canadian governments a failing grade for not doing more to protect women and children from human trafficking. And the advocacy group REED (Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity) has launched a campaign called “Buying Sex Is Not a Sport” in order to “raise awareness and effect change around sex trafficking and the 2010 Olympic games.” According to this group, “There is an uncontrolled male demand for sexual access to the bodies of women (and children) and the supply for this demand is met through violating the dignity of women.” The campaign’s modest goal? To “end the demand for paid sex.”
Blurring the Lines
Even from the selection of brief quotations above, it is clear that there are two separate and very different issues being discussed: human trafficking, which involves buying and selling people into forced labour; and sex work, which involves the exchange of sex for money. In the first case, we’re talking about the initiation of force against another human being, which is always wrong, and should be punishable by law, end of story. In the second case, we’re talking about voluntary exchange between consenting adults, which is the very opposite of the initiation of force, and should never be subject to legal sanction. Clearly, some sex workers are the victims of human trafficking, but just as clearly, many are not.
Lorna Dueck, executive producer of Listen Up, a religious television program, nicely illustrates the kind of doublethink that allows for the conflation of these two very different phenomena. In a commentary in The Globe and Mail last Monday, Dueck opined about the “news” that “Canadian pimps have forced prostitutes into Vancouver to service tourists during the upcoming Olympics.” After the obligatory denunciation of actual human trafficking, Dueck slides seamlessly into a discussion of the fact that on average, individuals first begin participating in prostitution somewhere between the ages of 14 and 16. Teenage prostitution is certainly lamentable, and efforts to curb the practice are commendable. But in itself, this is not an argument against adult prostitution, any more than teenage drinking is an argument for preventing adults from drinking booze.
Dueck later quotes a Toronto youth worker who says that most of the girls he knows who have exited prostitution “have told of being drawn into the sex trade by coercion and controlled by violence.” Without a doubt, there are sad stories out there, but what does this prove? Not only is it anecdotal, but it would be hard to come up with a less representative sampling of prostitutes than those who have exited the profession with the help of a youth worker.
The Problem with Prohibition
In fact, stories of prostitutes who do not feel victimized in their profession are so commonplace that Dueck has to address them, if only to quickly dismiss them. She briefly mentions women who “tell us they come to thrive in the ‘industry’” (emphasis added). Dueck’s only response—besides implying that these women must be either lying or deluded—is to pray that they fail in their efforts to make it legal to live off the avails of prostitution. Should they succeed, “organized crime would be out scrambling for more girls to meet demand.”
Right. Because when alcohol prohibition in the United States was repealed in the early 1930s, organized crime was the big winner. On the contrary, when adults were once again free to exchange money for booze, legitimate businesses replaced organized criminals, who no longer had a lock on the trade. Notably, violence in the streets plummeted, just as violence against prostitutes would virtually disappear if they were allowed to conduct their business without fear of legal reprisal.
At any rate, it is not really evident that this is a major problem now in Canada, where prostitution exists in a legal grey zone: the act itself is not against the law, while advertizing, pimping, or setting up a brothel is. According to Joyce Arthur, a cofounder of FIRST, a group fighting for sex workers’ rights, “The great majority of sex workers are not trafficked or controlled by ‘pimps’. Most are in business for themselves or work through an agency, and most work indoors, not on the street where it’s far more dangerous.” Arthur also quotes a recent study that debunks the alleged link between human trafficking and large sporting events. Yes, despite what Dueck and crew would have you believe, it turns out that the prostitutes flying in for the Olympic Games are actually exercising their own free will, just like their customers are.
The whole affair might seem distasteful to some, who are of course free to use persuasion to convince others of their views. Prostitution certainly falls short of the ideal of romantic love, which I personally hold dear. But then, so do random hook-ups in bars. Most people would never dream of outlawing one night stands. As long as we’re talking about voluntary exchanges between consenting adults, there’s no reason why the mere presence of money would justify involving the heavy hand of the State in prostitution, either.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.