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Why are feminists and other progressive types so enthusiastic about legalizing prostitution? It baffles me. Prostitution is the most exploitative, degrading work on Earth. Despite those stories about high-class call girls, its practitioners are overwhelmingly the most wretched girls and women in society. Prostitution turns women into lumps of meat that are bought and sold for the sexual gratification of men. If you legalize it, you will probably get more. Please explain how that can be a good thing.

The current case before the Supreme Court of Canada argues that indoor prostitution should be legalized in order to improve the safety and dignity of sex workers. Its poster girl is media darling Terri-Jean Bedford, the leather-clad kitten with a whip who was busted way back when for operating an upscale S&M service for clients who paid her to be tied up and thrashed. I admire Ms. Bedford. She is a sharp entrepreneur and a brilliant publicist. But she is no more typical of the sex trade than your Great-Aunt Dorothy. For starters, the dominatrix didn't have sex with her clients. She told them what to do, not vice versa.

Ms. Bedford's lawyer is Alan Young, who essentially argues that prostitutes should be allowed to operate legally indoors, and to improve their working conditions by hiring drivers and bodyguards. This idealized portrait of the sex worker as empowered small-business entrepreneur could only have been dreamed up in a women's studies course. This sordid trade has been heavily sanitized by feminists and the sex-workers' rights movement, which wants to rescue prostitutes from "victimhood" by abolishing the word "prostitute" (too demeaning) and framing prostitution (sorry, sex work) as a legitimate career choice.

This reframing conveniently omits the huge, destructive influence of pimps and drugs, while invoking human rights as a justification for women's freedom to use their bodies any way they want. In the words of Vancouver's Pivot Society, one intervenor in the Supreme Court case, "All sex workers deserve to have their choices respected and be able to work safely, without fear of violence, discrimination and social stigma."

The enlightened classes have bought into this exalted nonsense. Today, anyone who has qualms about normalizing the sex trade is likely to be labelled as a religious nut, a prude, or an old-style moralist. Perhaps this explains why our media's coverage of the issue has been so dismally parochial. Most Canadians have no idea that over the past decade, vast experiments with prostitution laws have been playing out in many countries not unlike our own. The results are in. And they are instructive.

Let's start in Germany, where prostitution became legal in 2002. The change was backed by the Greens and Social Democrats, who aimed to strengthen women's rights and turn prostitution into a normal profession like, say, bus conducting. So how's that working out? Today, Germany has become "the cut-rate prostitution capital of the world," as Time magazine puts it. It is a magnet for migrant sex workers, who are lured from their wretched villages in Bulgaria and Romania and turned into virtual sex slaves in Germany's 3,000 brothels. Police are nearly powerless to help them. The number of prostitutes has exploded to about 200,000, and prices have been driven to rock bottom. A devastating investigation into the sex trade by Der Spiegel found that tourists can get flat-rate deals – all the sex they want – for less than $100.

Idealists thought the new law would turn prostitutes into independent agents and put them on an equal footing with their customers. Instead, it has been a licence for exploitation on an unprecedented scale.

The Netherlands has fared no better. When prostitution was legalized in 2000, the idea was that prostitutes would join a union and that brothels would be regulated, inspected and taxed. But much of the sex trade operates outside the regulations. Legalization has merely expanded the market and allowed the spread of brothels all over the country. Amsterdam's red-light district has become a haven for money laundering and drugs. A 2008 Dutch National Police report said, "The idea that a clean, normal business sector has emerged is an illusion." And a study from the London School of Economics found that human trafficking goes hand-in-hand with legalization, because legalization encourages sex tourism and vastly increases the demand for paid sex.

Several countries where prostitution has been legalized have begun to admit that their policies have been an utter failure. Some have decided they would do better to emulate Sweden, which took a sharply different course after its own experiment with decriminalization failed. In 1999, the Swedes decided to attack prostitution by punishing the exploiters, not the victims – and by offering the victims a way out. This policy is rooted in a progressive feminism of a very different stripe – a belief that prostitution, whether voluntary or not, results in serious harm against women and society. It should be marginalized, not normalized.

The results are persuasive. Street prostitution has been cut in half. Crime and organized trafficking are down. Police say the sex trade has not gone underground. Men who might otherwise have patronized prostitutes have been scared off by the inconvenience and stigma. Many women, with the sympathetic assistance of police and social workers, have found other lines of work. Seventy per cent of Swedes support the law.

In Canada, some women's groups do not support the case for legalization. Among them are the front-line sexual assault centres and the Native Women's Association of Canada – groups that work with the worst-off, most damaged, most exploited girls and women of them all. They have no photogenic poster girls like Terri-Jean Bedford. They have no illusions that legalization means empowerment. They know it only means more degradation. Is that what we want? I think not.

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