The Ottawa Citizen by Shari Graydon 14 June 2013

Former bawdy house owner Terri-Jean Bedford and her colleagues are asking the Supreme Court to strike down the laws that currently make street soliciting, brothels and pimping illegal. They’ve framed their petition as one that will deliver prostituted women from danger and victimization into safety and control.

If only they were right.

Unfortunately, much of the evidence suggests otherwise. And the tragedy of the way this case has played out is that the Ontario and federal governments, in defending the current law, have thrown prostituted women under the bus.

Just to be clear, I think the men who treat women’s bodies as disposable objects or profit from their exploitation belong in the gutter. Pimping should remain illegal, and the law should actively seek to remedy the profound power imbalance that lies at the heart of most transactions between those with the ability to purchase sex, and those forced into selling it for survival.

At the same time, I support decriminalizing the women themselves. Because although some claim to willingly enter the sex trade, the vast majority of women do so under circumstances that can hardly be labelled as genuine choice.

Much evidence documents the extent to which many begin as teenagers escaping sexual or physical abuse at home and most are coerced into performing sex acts for money by others seeking to profit from their bodies. With little formal education and few alternatives, their extreme poverty — often compounded by addiction — is usually what propels them into a life that no one would wish on another. Not surprisingly, 95 per cent of women interviewed on Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside said they wanted a way out of the sex trade.

Prosecuting and jailing these women essentially punishes them for being poor and vulnerable, and blames them for broader social failure. And that social failure includes Canada’s historical treatment of aboriginal people, whose women are vastly over-represented in the sex trade, and who continue to bear the worst brunt of our willingness to look the other way. The same holds true for other racialized women.

But I don’t share the optimism of those arguing that complete decriminalization will protect women. The approach they’re advocating represents perilously magical thinking. Removing the legal barriers to brothels and pimping is likely to expand, not curtail, the exploitation of women.

Other countries have found that opening prostitution up to market forces increases the demand for unsafe sex and drives the prices down, making it even more difficult for the women involved to escape poverty.

And moving the trade behind closed doors just gives more power to a negotiator who is financially motivated to agree to johns’ insistence on unsafe sex or degrading acts that the women themselves would decline if they could.

Far from controlling prostitution, the kind of decriminalization the Bedford petitioners are asking for appears to increase sex trade activities like human trafficking and the exploitation of children.

Some jurisdictions have gone down this dark alley to discover it’s a dead end — literally.

The Netherlands — often held up as a progressive case that points the way to a better, safer way — documented the murder of more than 50 prostituted women between 1992 and 2004. The country’s legalization experiment has resulted in big crime replacing small entrepreneurs. Indeed, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime now identifies the Netherlands as a prime destination for human trafficking victims from Thailand, China and Eastern Europe.

Is this what we want in Canada?

Some will continue to label prostitution the “oldest profession” as a specious means of reinforcing the notion that any attempts to eradicate it are futile.

But this is a way of obscuring the inconvenient truth that the sale of sex is fundamentally a gendered issue — an extreme manifestation of the imbalance of power between the most vulnerable women of our society, and the men who prey on their desperation.

Recognizing the degrading violation of human dignity that’s at the heart of this inequality, Canada should seek not to legitimize prostitution, but to end it.

Sweden has already pioneered such an approach. In 1999, the country made it legal to communicate for the purposes of selling sex while making it illegal to pimp or buy sex. As a result, the majority of prostituted women have been able to leave the sex trade.

In fact, a decade after Sweden introduced what’s now being called the “Nordic Model,” both Norway and Iceland were sufficiently persuaded by its impact to adopt a similar approach. Instead of prosecuting prostituted women, they’ve offered them social services, educational support and genuine alternatives, while criminalizing pimps and johns.

Because the bottom line is that only the liberation of women from social, economic and political inequality can end prostitution.

Canadian women deserve no less.

Shari Graydon is an author and the founder and catalyst of Informed Opinions, a non-profit initiative working to bridge the gender gap in public discourse.