Prostitution. It’s the world’s oldest profession. It’s mentioned in the Bible. We gape at women we see on the street who embody the stereotypical street walker. We snicker around the water cooler when some high powered celebrity or politician is caught with his pants down in the company of a hooker. Most of the time, however, my guess is that people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about prostitutes. But now, the debate over whether prostitution should be decriminalized is making headlines once again in Canada, as a small group of women challenges the government’s laws regarding their “profession”. There’s a bit of a problem here though, because in Canada, prostitution is legal. You read correctly, prostitution is legal, so why is there a court case asking for it to be decriminalized? Because in Canada, while prostitution is legal, soliciting is illegal. Communicating for the purpose of procuring or selling sex is illegal. Living off the avails of prostitution is illegal. Running a brothel is illegal. But prostitution? Definitely legal.
Confused yet? You are not alone.
A story in Canada’s online edition of The National Post notes that three women, Valerie Scott, a former prostitute who currently runs a sex-trade advocacy group, Terri-Jean Bedford, a dominatrix and Amy Lebovotich, a working prostitute, have decided to join forces and challenge what they see as discrimination against them and their friends and coworkers of the night. They are hoping, it seems, to overcome the difficulties the laws present them as they try to make a living from their chosen professions. The law, which allows women to sell their bodies for sex to anyone who is interested, also makes it illegal to do so, because to sell anything, be it the latest video game, car or sex, requires a few things. First, you need to be able to communicate with potential buyers, something Canada’s communication law (Section 213 of the Criminal Code) prohibits. Having a place of business is usually helpful too, but again, Canada says you can do it, you just can’t do it here. Or there. Or anywhere, really, but feel free to sell your body if that’s what you want to do.
Another part of this bizarre law states that living off the prevails of prostitution is illegal, which means that being a pimp is, of course, illegal, but also paying your rent with the money made from prostitution is illegal. Oh and if you happen to be living with a partner who is not your pimp, he can be charged as a pimp because if he lives with you he is then living off the prevails of prostitution even if he (for the sake of argument) has no idea what you are doing when he is not home. Which makes having a live in boyfriend or husband a rather sticky problem for these women (never mind what kind of relationship you might have if your partner is OK with you being a prostitute in the first place). It also makes it impossible to legally hire a bodyguard for protection (a major concern for these women), because the guard would then be living off money made from prostitution, which, as I’ve stated, is illegal.
Lawyers for both the federal and provincial governments claim that while prostitution is legal, the government neither authorizes nor condones it. One of the plaintiffs, Valerie Scott, lived with a friend who was also a prostitute back in the 1980’s. The women arranged for clients together and split rent on their apartment. Which means that these women were essentially running a bawdy house, communicating with men for the purpose of solicitation and breaking the law. Now here’s the really confusing part: a spokesperson for the Attorney General of Ontario’s office says that the arrangement that Ms. Scott and her friend had might be a possible solution that would not have prostitutes running afoul of the law.
The plaintiffs are hoping to convince the court that changes need to be made to the law. They are right. The problem is that the law contradicts itself. Why is prostitution legal in the first place? Why haven’t we said straight out that selling your body is illegal? Why are we so afraid to stand up and say what most of us think? That it is immoral to make money off sex.
Why don’t we say anything? Because prostitution has always existed. And so we think that there is nothing that we can do about it, so we should just accept it and make it seem like a “normal” career choice for young women.
No one I know with young children would consider prostitution an acceptable career for their child and yet, no one wants to be called the Morality Police and so we say things like, “Well, I would never do it, but it’s fine for you, so go right ahead”. For those of us who are willing to stand up and argue against the rampant sexuality thrown in our faces on a daily basis, it seems we are fighting a losing battle. Music videos, video games, magazine covers with scantily clad women and men on them, headlines that scream out about how to have the best sex of our lives with anyone at any time all contribute to the desensitization of sex. How on earth are our children supposed to learn the value of their bodies and the fulfillment that having one sexual partner can give you if we constantly tell them differently with the media with which they are bombarded?
Instead of allowing prostitution to remain legal, the courts should do something really radical and tell the people of Canada that it has decided to get off the merry go round that is this law and declare that selling your body is illegal. Will they do it? Doubtful, because it seems there are very few people who want to stand up and tell their neighbour that they are doing something wrong. We live in a world where everyone wants to live and let live, a society that is horrified by the mere mention of sexual prudence and yet wrings its hands when the ugly side of prostitution rears its head.
The plaintiffs in this case are right about one thing: a change needs to be made and that change needs to be made with and for our children. It’s time to teach boys that objectifying women is wrong and for our girls to learn that they are strong and powerful without selling themselves short. As long as there are men willing to pay for sex, there will be women willing to sell it to them, but it’s time for the world’s oldest profession to be put to rest.
Barbara Lilley is a writer and mother of four living in Ottawa, Canada.