Imagine a case where a young woman accuses her employer of sexual harassment. The man in question makes inappropriate comments about the woman’s body and suggests that her co-workers are all having sex with him: “Most girls will do anything for me,” he tells her. The employee feels degraded and intimidated, and has trouble eating and sleeping.
Seems like a pretty open-and-shut case. Show the bum the door! Now, imagine that the woman is a prostitute, and the employer who’s harassing her is actually her brothel manager. Does that change your opinion about her accusation? It shouldn’t.
Last week in Wellington, N.Z., an unnamed sex worker was awarded about $25,000 in damages after a tribunal ruled that her brothel manager had violated the country’s Human Rights Act and caused her “humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.” In other words, they honoured the “worker” bit of “sex worker” and treated her as if she’d been serving drinks or writing briefs, and was being abused by a bar manager or a judge. She has the same rights as any other person selling her labour in a capitalist society.
This is, of course, not how we tend to look at prostitution. The thickets of morality, judgment and history have grown so thick around sex work that it’s hard to hack away the rhetoric and cut to the heart of the issue: How to provide a safe, regulated framework where the sellers and buyers of a commodity can meet and make their exchanges in peace, and where neither party is coerced or exploited.
Consider that in the United States, you can legally sell your plasma, but not the pleasures of your body (except in Nevada, where you can do both). It’s odd that the proponents of so-called “free markets” assume a Victorian modesty when talk turns to selling sex. “We believe that prostitution is intrinsically degrading and harmful to vulnerable persons, especially women,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay said in January, “and we intend to protect women and protect society generally from exploitation and abuse.”
The federal government is in the process of drafting new legislation around sex work, after the Supreme Court struck down the laws associated with living off the avails of prostitution and prohibiting brothels. It seems the government may be leaning toward the so-called “Nordic model,” pioneered in Sweden, which leaves sex workers above the law but targets their johns. (France and Britain are also looking to Sweden as they revamp outdated prostitution laws.)
Many Canadian advocates for sex workers dislike the Swedish approach, saying it would make their job more dangerous because they wouldn’t be able to conduct business openly and screen their clients. “This federal government is solely interested in its own political safety and could [not] care less about our lives,” Valerie Scott, one of the women who successfully challenged the federal law, told the CBC.
In New Zealand, however, the whole business is decriminalized, and treated as just that – a business, regulated like all other businesses. The very first provision of the country’s Prostitution Reform Act 2003 is that the act “safeguards the human rights of sex workers and protects them from exploitation.”
Of course, this language will seem bloodless if you believe, as many do, that sex work is inherently abusive, degrading and exploitative. But if you accept that the demand for paid sex isn’t going to magically die with the flutter of a politician’s wand, then the best way to legislate for workers’ safety is to ensure that they can operate in the open, buttressed by human-rights law, without shame or fear.
One of the most popular articles in The Globe last week was a thoughtful essay headlined With No Career Prospects And A Pile Of Student Debt, I Thought Prostitution Was The Easy Way Out. Its author, Christine Wilson, wrote about the costs and benefits of the trade – deciding that the former outweighed the latter. In the end, working as a waitress, she says she sometimes feels more exploited by drunks at the bar than her former clients. But Ms. Wilson – the name is a pseudonym, which says much about the stigma around sex work – notes that “our society is based on a system of exploitation, and you have to ask if sexual services are really so different when you get over people’s hangups about sex.”
The government is due to introduce new legislation some time this year. I doubt we’ll be over our hangups by then.