Saturday, September 26, 1998

Dan Allman

p. D10.

Prostitution: just another job

Sex workers are not always victims, says sociologist

Prostitution as a Social Problem
By Deborah R. Brock
University of Toronto Press
206 pages, $45/$18.95

Twenty-one years ago this month, the drowned body of a shoeshine boy was found above the Charlie's Angels massage parlour on Toronto's Yonge Street. His name was Emanuel Jaques. He was 12 years old.

The murder of Jaques, and the resulting media frenzy the summer and fall of 1977, provide Deborah R. Brock's Making Work, Making Trouble: Prostitution as a Social Problem with a precise event to chart a chain of judicial, legal and policing movements that would rearrange "the sounds of the sex trade" from Halifax to Victoria.

It is a novel analysis, and a worthy one.

Brock, a sociologist and feminist, has transforming a sometimes rigid academic analysis (it is a reworking of her recent PhD thesis) into a text with wider appeal. Part social history, part critical analysis, she argues that two decades of "moral panic" are largely responsible for Canada's continued criminalization of prostitution and other forms of sex work.

The book is a highly detailed account of a sexual marketplace. Brock tackles the history of sex-work activism, the formation of citizens' rights groups confronted with an increasingly visible sex trade, the findings of municipal, provincial and federal consultations designed to confront the issues, and the evolution of legal statutes in the Criminal Code.

Whereas mainstream feminism would "equate prostitution with the exploitation of women," Brock finds labelling prostitutes victims an "affront to the many assertive, independent adult women who … would not subject themselves to the more respectable female job ghetto." Rather than treat prostitution as a crime, Brock considers it as an occupation (a position activist sex workers in Canada and elsewhere are taking with increasing frequency). The reason for this reconceptualization is that it allows us to view prostitution as a series of regulated practices as opposed to one overriding social problem. The focus is very much on how "particular forms of the business of prostitution were produced as visible and regulatable social problems."

Going beyond a simple legal analysis of the criminalization and legalization of prostitution and its related activities, Brock demonstrates that regulatory procedures "can actually create that which is being regulated" -- for example, the prohibition against bawdy houses ensures that prostitution takes to the streets.

One of the book's strengths is that Brock considers not only the actions of the courts and law enforcement, but also economic shifts, the role of media reporting and the construction of Canada's often invisible social classes. Importantly, she makes the distinction between adult and juvenile prostitution, separating the sexual work of adults from the sexual exploitation of minors. She shows how the public's fascination with the sordid lives of street kids has also fed the moral panic, allowing "an additional impetus for the crackdown on all street prostitution."

Where Brock does falter is in her token attempt to incorporate the very different experiences of male sex workers. By not fully considering the sexes on equal grounds, she fails to complete an analysis of the relations between sex work and the larger labour pool (the female job ghetto is very different from the male job market). Although her description of the "scapegoating" impact of HIV and the AIDS epidemic in the criminalized lives of Canadian sex workers is insightful, there is virtually no consideration of the (erratic) behavioural and epidemiological data on sex work and AIDS collected in Canada.

Finally, the reader would benefit from a more in-depth review of the wider historical context, as well as an understanding of how Canadian prostitution may have been labelled a social problem in the decades before the sexual revolution.

Making Work, Making Trouble is an important addition to the Canadian literature on sex work, providing a critical base with which to consider other works, such as Alexandra Highcrest's At Home on the Stroll: My Twenty Years as a Prostitute in Canada and Adie Nelson and Barrie W. Robinson's Gigolos and Madames Bountiful: Illusions of Gender, Power, and Intimacy.

By placing her analysis in the context of work and occupational safety, and by crafting her argument in careful and direct prose, Brock illuminates the issues. Ultimately, the book recasts the view of prostitution as a social problem, restating Marx's assertion that "prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer."

Had Emanuel Jaques not met his end in the summer of '77, he would have turned 33 this year. As Brock's research reveals, his brutal death was a convenient excuse for the cross-Canada political and policing agenda of the times, a "trigger" for post-Trudeau politicians to place themselves once again "in the bedrooms of the nation."

* * *

Dan Allman is a sociologist and sex-work advocate with an interest in public health.

[Toronto '98] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: October 5, 1998
Last modified: October 6, 1998

CSIS Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710