I recently spent several weeks researching a story on prostitution in Canada. It left me sleepless — and almost speechless. One of the first things I learned is that the average age of a girl entering prostitution in Canada is 15 or 16. I have a 15-year-old son with lovely friends who are girls, and it is inconceivable to me that some of their peers are working the streets in Canadian cities.
Kat, one of my sources, has been free of prostitution for two years. What led her into the life is agonizingly typical: one horrific relationship after another, an absent father, poverty and a deep sense of having no choice.
“No one is in it because they like it,” says Derek Parenteau, who helps run STAND (Sex Trade Alternatives and New Directions) out of the Yonge Street Mission in Toronto. “They’ve been forced into it, either directly by a pimp, or indirectly by financial need.”
Greg Paul, director of Sanctuary, an inner-city ministry in downtown Toronto, concurs. “If we say it is their choice, then we are saying that at 15, the majority of people who will be sex workers are making a clear, adult, non-pressured decision and saying, ‘That’s what I’d really like to do, is have men pay me for sex.’”
The advocates I spoke to — and Kat — say that women working in the sex trade are victims, and the men who buy them are exploiters.
That is a sharp contrast to the thinking behind Justice Susan Himel’s 2010 ruling that struck down three key provisions in Canada’s anti-prostitution laws. Those who celebrated Himel’s decision say that prostitution can be made safer for women by dismantling the legal restrictions of living off the avails of prostitution, keeping a bawdy house and communicating for the purposes of prostitution.
In this argument, prostituted women are presented as independent business people — not as victims of men’s desire to exercise their power and control by buying sex.
Serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims are victimized yet again when it is argued that working in a brothel would have kept them out of his clutches. Michelle Miller of REED (Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity), a Vancouver-based group that journeys with women who are being sexually exploited, says the women Pickton slaughtered would never have been employed by a brothel in the first place because they weren’t free of drugs or disease.
A solid legal alternative exists to protect prostituted women in Canada. It’s called the Nordic model. Implemented in 1999, Sweden’s Act Prohibiting the Purchase of Sexual Services criminalizes the buyers, not the sellers. Pimps and the johns are charged, while prostituted women are offered a way out and lots of support. More than 10 years later, the number of prostitutes working in Sweden has decreased dramatically. Organized crime and human trafficking have also gone down.
Prostitution is not a healthy choice for 15-year-old girls — or anybody else. A good Canadian law will punish those who deserve it: the men cruising the back streets looking for a girl to buy. And it will provide an exit ramp for the girls and women who are trapped in a life that we would take a bullet to stop our own daughters — or our son’s friends — from joining. Why do we pretend it’s an acceptable life for anyone else?
Karen Stiller is an author and journalist who lives in Port Perry, Ont.
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