Parksville, BC, Canada
Despite the contents of this and previous columns, I refuse to describe myself as a “libertarian”. If the meaning of libertarianism could ever be narrowed down (forget defined, that will never happen to anyone’s satisfaction), it might be an apt word for my politics, but I don’t share very much political thought with avowed libertarians like say, Ron Paul, or other wingnuts for whom libertarianism actually means rudderless chaos. Consequently I don’t like any of the acknowledged political categories but am content to be outraged by elements of every aspect of the political spectrum.
That said, today I want to advocate a far less controversial (than some previous ones) proposal for Canada and the US and any civilised country…uncivilised ones are generally ahead of us on this one…the straightforward, unambiguous legalisation of prostitution. It’s not particularly controversial because many civilised countries have already done so; famously Holland, but also other European countries, the eastern half of Australia, Singapore; Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia and many other Latin American countries have legal prostitution; even one of the United States, Nevada, has a byzantine and deeply corrupt legal toleration of prostitution; the notion isn’t entirely radical. But I specify straightforward and unambiguous because of some of the odd convolutions in the prostitution legislation. Forget Nevada…nobody understands it and it only serves to enrich the politically connected in a few counties.
Canada? Very Canadian. Strictly speaking prostitution is not illegal, nor is it against the law to solicit. But to solicit persistently and aggressively is illegal (and very un-Canadian); to live off the avails of prostitution or inhabit a common bawdy house…these are prohibited. So let’s just get it done. Let’s write the law in a simple straightforward manner that permits the profession to exist with the same level of oversight and professional standards that govern any other legitimate business.
Before the words “oldest profession” pop up and before anyone bothers to point out that prostitution has been around since the dawn of humanity and has never been successfully suppressed, let me emphasise that neither the venerability of the profession nor its ability to survive attempts at eradication play a part in my argument that its practice ought to be a perfectly legal endeavour. That it has a long history and that we haven’t it eliminated after millennia of trying is not sufficient reason to legalise or even tolerate anything. Murder and theft have equally illustrious and ancient histories and have been outlawed for even longer; I certainly don’t support their legalisation out of a sense of failure to eradicate; no that’s all true; it’s just not good enough.
I support the legalisation of prostitution for several reasons, the first of which is the libertarian one: there is no reason to prohibit it.
No reasonable person today subscribes to the notion that sex between consenting adults is intrinsically wrong. Most people think it’s a great idea and a good many spend much of their disposable time and income in the pursuit of exactly that activity. The idea that one of the participants in sexual activity may honestly charge money for that participation is entirely reasonable. The very idea of commerce and exchange is that one party offers goods or services in exchange for money. Presuming both parties perform as agreed; one might even argue (Edmund Burke did, so did Jean Jacques Rousseau) that we have seen the basis of civilisation at work.
It is almost beyond argument that the social costs of prostitution are directly connected to the illegality of the profession and that those costs can certainly be mitigated and possibly even eliminated with thoughtful legalisation and oversight. Beyond the sex itself, what are the evils commonly quoted as reasons to outlaw the profession? Exploitation of women? Legalise and regulate prostitution. STDs? Legalise and regulate. Underage prostitutes? Legalise and regulate. Drug use? Legalise and regulate. Degeneration of neighbourhoods? Legalise and regulate. An underground economy that contributes nothing in the way of tax revenue? Legalise and regulate. The social ostracisation of sex-trade workers? Legalise and regulate. Every single one of the reasons to prohibit prostitution, apart from the ones that have to do with an inexplicable aversion to the very idea of sex, can be addressed by making it an honourable, proud, tax paying, and legal profession.
But the second reason I strongly advocate the legalisation and regulation of prostitution is that I have great respect and affection for women. And people in general. I am fully cognisant of the fact that a great deal of prostitution is male to male; or male to female; or transgender to male; or transgender to…oh well, you get the idea. And I fully support the legalisation of the profession in whatever form it takes as long as adulthood and consent are prerequisites. But since the overwhelming number of prostitutes are women and most of their clients men, I am focussing this discussion on that segment of the industry. And it is largely women who are the victims of the fact that prostitution is illegal.
Not far from where I live, a man named Robert (Willie) Pickton, picked up streetwalkers on
Vancouver’s seedy east side, took them back to his semi-urban farm, raped, slaughtered, butchered, and in some cases cured or ground their remains and sold them with his specialty meat products. He was eventually arrested and tried. He has been convicted of six of those murders, he is charged with 20 more and claims that he is responsible for 49 and was about to kill his 50th, but got caught because he was “getting sloppy”.
He plied his grisly trade of serial murder for about twenty years in precisely the same area and without varying his methods. He was known among the working girls of the district as someone to be avoided, and yet he carried on for decades with seeming impunity. The police, including the RCMP, put little effort or time into tracking down one of the world’s most prolific serial killers; in fact it took years to persuade the local police that there was even a pattern to the disappearances of the women. Because the women were prostitutes and many were drug users and many were Native American, the police took the view that they were a highly mobile and unimportant sector of society. They come and go all the time. They were a nuisance and not terribly missed by anyone but their families and friends.
Had their trade been legal and well-regulated, most, if not all, of these women would be alive today. It is without question that the status of prostitution under the law contributed to if not caused them to be targets for Willie Pickton. Prostitutes, because the lack of legitimacy of their profession, are by far the favourite prey of serial killers. Like Pickton, the very first celebrity serial killer, Jack the Ripper, hunted down and slaughtered exclusively streetwalkers. The laws that force women employed in the sex trade to walk the streets at night, out of sight of the police, furtively seeking out the hidden, secret spots in the worst parts of a city couldn’t be better designed to turn them into the ideal victims of a sexual sadist and murderer. Legalise, regulate, and protect.
Beyond serial killers, street sex workers are often exploited by pimps, or bad dates. Whether the exploitation is the parasitic type exemplified by the pimp who runs a string of girls or the bad date who gets off on hurting women, that exploitation is easily minimised. Legalise, regulate, and protect.
On a more sociological level, the objection is that the legal demonisation of prostitution is one more of society’s intrusions into people’s control over what they do with their own bodies. It is simply offensive that society can tell me, or you, or anyone with whom they are permitted to have sex. And the issue of money changing hands is the most curious one of all. Everybody knows that money and sex are inextricably intertwined and always have been. The old chestnut goes like this: a man asks if a woman would marry him for a million dollars; upon being told yes, he asks if she would sleep with him for ten. She demands to know what kind of a woman she is and he responds that that has been established; all they were doing now was negotiating price.
The justifications for the legalisation of prostitution could just keep coming almost indefinitely. But I want to finish with just one more point. To make an act illegal, that act has to be defined absolutely clearly. There is something comical about elected officials spending their time parsing sentences with legal seriousness in an effort to describe just when, let’s say a massage, steps over the line and becomes a prohibited sex act. When the man sports an erection? If the masseuse touches it? Suppose he touches it? Orgasm? How ridiculous can we get? Phone sex?
No, it isn’t enough simply to turn a blind eye to prostitution. Countries like Canada where it is tolerated but not legalised and regulated are far from being the example to follow…it is the tolerance of prostitution while driving it underground that allowed Willie Pickton to slaughter so many young women. All civilised countries should step up and pass regulatory legislation that will protect the public as well as the sex workers and recognise that it is the right thing to do; it is right morally, socially, and it is right practically.