Sunday, September 28, 1997

John Lowman

P. A47.

An award-winning criminology professor issues a challenge to the politicians of Canada. The issue he wants them to tackle:

Young prostitute in downtown Vancouver. Staff photo by Gerry Kahrmann.

The hypocrisy of prostitution laws

Two years ago, when the City of Toronto recommended that prostitution be decriminalized, Vancouver councillors were united in their opposition, arguing that it would be unconscionable to take any step that condoned prostitution.

Earlier this year the Alberta Task Force on Children involved in Prostitution opposed any form of regulation for fear that it would tacitly support youth involvement in the trade. And in several cities "john's schools" have been established to " make men accountable for prostitution," and compel them to stop buying sex.

Apart from the Toronto proposal, the Canadian political rhetoric is almost entirely abolitionist/prohibitionist in flavor. And yet prostitution is legal in Canada, and nearly all the larger municipalities are profiting from it by licensing escort services and body-rub parlors, the largest and most lucrative components of the trade.

In the 1970s there was only a handful of escort agencies in Canada. Now there are hundreds. Has anything been done to stem the growth of this sex trade? Not much according to national law enforcement statistics. From 1985 to 1996, roughly 95 per cent of the sex-to-eleven thousand annual prostitution charges were for communicating in public for the purpose of buying or selling sexual services.

Most of the remaining charges for procuring, living on the avails and bawdy house offences relate to street prostitution, not the off-street trade. If Canada's politicians are so against prostitution, why are the managers and owners of the largest segment of the business exempt from prosecution?

Consider the ironies masked by this political doublespeak. At the very same time the provinces are distributing information kits to help parents street-proof their kids, those same kids -- most of whom will never meet a street pimp -- can, in their very own homes pick up a local newspaper or Yellow Pages and read recruitment ads posted by the local escort services and body-rub parlors.

Why are government authorities not informing the public about what respondents to these ads might be getting themselves into? In what way are the men purchasing these services being made accountable for prostitution?

What of the police effort to quell the street prostitution trade? Has that, at least, been worthwhile? A street prostitution census conducted in Vancouver from 1982 through 1993 suggests that while street prostitution abated for a few months after the introduction of the communicating law in December 1985, by the latter half of 1986 the number of people visible on the street had returned to the level of the summer before, and has been rising ever since.

Nearly all the larger municipalities are profiting from prostitution by licensing escort services and body-rub parlors

Much more disturbing is the apparent impact of the new law on violence against street prostitutes. Over the past six years, one in 20 women murdered in Canada was a known prostitute. From information in police files and newspaper reports, we have compiled statistics on murders of sex trade workers in British Columbia from 1960 through 1995. The first murder during this period occurred in 1975. From 1976 to 1980 there were four more, and from 1981 to 1985 another 12. Then, from 1986 through 1995 there were more than 50, the overwhelming majority of whom were street prostitutes. How do we explain this rising slaughter?

Among the reasons that street prostitution increased through the 1970s is that police put it on the street by enforcing laws against off-street venues. Then in the 1980s, blind to the self-defeating and contradictory nature of our prostitution laws, local politicians, residents' lobby groups and police joined in a shrill campaign demanding more punitive measures to sweep prostitution from our streets.

I believe this anti-prostitution rhetoric -- the discourse of disposal, if you will -- made it that much easier for sexual predators and other misogynists to justify violence against street prostitutes, especially after the street prostitution law introduced in 1985 consolidated the adversarial relationship between prostitutes and police. Then as law enforcement initiatives forced prostitutes out of residential areas into more secluded locations, they became easier targets for assaults, robberies and murder.

It is time for Canadian politicians to take a very different tack. If prostitution is going to continue to be legal we must decide when and under what circumstances it can occur. We must create viable choices for people who see prostitution as their only option for making a living, and develop programs of harm reduction for sex sellers who want them. We should repeal all the prostitution laws, and start over.

Four principles should guide the application of law to prostitution:

  1. regard sexual procurement of children and youth as an abuse of power, not a prostitution contract;

  2. use generic criminal laws to protect sex sellers from pimp coercion and customer violence;

  3. facilitate systems of sex-seller self-employment, cooperatives, or non-profit management systems in appropriate locations; and

  4. use generic criminal public disturbance laws and generic civil laws controlling street commerce to protect bystanders from nuisance.

John Lowman, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, won the 1997 Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy. For Internet access to some of the background research informing this argument, see

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Created: October 1, 1997
Last modified: October 23, 1997

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