Friday, March 12, 1999

Kirthie Abeyesekera

p. A 17.

Our prostitution laws should reflect our reality

The recent conviction of Joe Totera for "living off the avails of prostitution," through his escort agency takes us to the perennial problem of prostitution with which world communities are grappling.

As a crime investigative reporter, I have researched and written extensively on the subject. Way back in 1970, I visited England, Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark to study the relationship between drugs and prostitution. Germany, which had enlightened views on the subject, had zoned areas — red light districts for adults only — in big cities like Hamburg, Berlin and Frankfurt, where women freely plied their trade under the protective arm of the law and the caring eye of health authorities.

In Amsterdam, then the "Do-Your-Thing" capital of the Western world, and in Copenhagen, sexual services were available almost anywhere, for the asking. Incidentally, The Netherlands and Denmark then had some of the world's lowest crime rates.

Prostitution laws, the world over, are conflicting and contradictory. In Canada, prostitution is legal, while soliciting (in public) is not. One can live on the earnings of one's own prostitution, but may not live on the avails of another's prostitution as Totera found out. It follows logically, that if one cannot live on the avails of another's prostitution, the children supported by mothers who earn a living by prostitution, and the husbands or boyfriends of such women who share food, clothing and shelter paid for through prostitution-related earnings, are also guilty of a criminal offence — although they play no active role, directly or otherwise, in the act of prostitution itself. A clever prosecutor may even gain a conviction on such an argument.

To my mind, a crime must have a victim. An escort agency caters to willing clients through willing providers, though moralists may argue that society as a whole is the victim. This view is no longer tenable. Dramatic changes in social values in the Western world include, for instance, the acceptance of the homosexual and lesbian way of life.

During U.S. President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial, a congressman said the "constitution was made for men, not for angels." Closer to home, Pierre Trudeau declared that the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation.

In the Totera case, the sexual activity was in fact, taking place in the bedrooms of hotels and motels. His escort agency was, indeed, providing a valuable service to women who want to protect their anonymity due to the social stigma attached to the world's oldest profession.

The countries I visited in 1970 had taken a practical view by allowing prostitution — within the state's manageable limits of control. Today, three decades later, Canada still has a puritanical perspective of and archaic laws on prostitution, thus paving the way for unscrupulous middlemen and women to capitalize on the needs of those who choose to live by selling their bodies, and those who are willing to pay for such services. The recent arrest of some Asian women in the grip of pimps is a case in point.

Many popular journals and even the mainstream print media run thousands of "classifieds" providing "services" of various sorts. Some are overt. The covert are often fronts for prostitution. So why turn a blind eye to the obvious? As long as there is a demand, there'll always be a supply — that's basic economics.

There has been considerable debate for and against the decriminalization that are still deemed "criminal" in the eyes of the law. It is time to remove the blinkers and take a realistic approach to what's happening around us.

Some groups, such as the Canadian Organization for the Rights of Prostitutes, have advocated decriminalization of the sex trade. This should be done by ensuring the compliance with prescribed standards.

In that way, we eliminate the middleman and the hide-and-seek ploys that make a mockery of the law.

Law enforcement could then turn from "morality" to issues of graver community concern.

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Created: March 28, 2000
Last modified: January 31, 2001
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