Prepared by Christine Hughes with input from all SACL staff
SACL’s position in brief:
As an organization striving to ultimately eliminate prostitution and all forms of violence against women, for reasons of both efficacy and morality, we do not support the legalization of prostitution. Rather we call for:
(1)   the decriminalization of the provision of sexual services
(2)   the criminalization of consumers of sex-for-money services
(3)   the proliferation of support services for women in all stages of engagement with the sex industry
(4)   reform to social policy and services to ensure meaningful employment and/or an effective social safety net.
While we acknowledge that both providers and consumers in the sex industry can be male or female, we focus here on men as consumers and women as providers of sexual services.
Legalization as Ineffective
Experience in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Australia where prostitution has been legalized suggests that overall it is not effective for the goals of reducing harm to sex trade workers, reducing trafficking, reducing underage prostitution, or curbing the proliferation of the industry as a whole. Indeed, trafficking has increased and the sex industry has expanded. Nor are women safer. Many women do not want to register or undergo the health checks necessary to work in legal establishments, so legalization often drives them into the more dangerous street prostitution. Furthermore, even women in legal establishments consider to suffer physical and sexual violence at the hands of employers and johns, as well as risks to their sexual health through the non-use of condoms, despite established policy.
The outcomes of legalization have been mixed at best and at worst completely opposite from what was hoped. Some would argue that there are some kinks to be worked out, that we can learn from these failures and tweak the legalization process to make it work more effectively in other places, such as Canada. But how much proof do we need that legalization does not work? And can we risk further experimentation that could well come at the further expense of women’s bodies, self-worth, and lives?
Prostitution as Harmful
Prostitution is not about consensual sex between two adult parties. To begin with, 80% of female sex trade workers are under 18. More importantly, however, prostitution amounts to the selling of bodies as sex objects in relationships of unequal power. Prostitution devalues the female body, reducing her to an object for sale. It harms a woman physically, mentally, and spiritually. It strengthens that message that women should be considered and marketed as sex objects, to be used at the whim and discretion of male subjects. As such it further entrenches inequality and the subordination of women.
The legalization of prostitution, even if it were done in the interest of reducing harm to sex workers, legitimizes prostitution and institutionalizes oppression. Legalization suggests that prostitution is okay, and we cannot accept that. Prostitution should be eradicated from society, and legalization will not contribute to that goal in as much as it sends the message that prostitution is something we just have to accept and put up with because it is the oldest profession and will never go away so we might as well regulate it. Many people once said that we could never get rid of slavery, but we have come a long way toward doing just that. We cannot accept prostitution as an ever-present reality. We must keep striving to eradicate it.
Also, legalization would translate into a tax grab, the government making money off the sale of women’s bodies. We cannot accept such a state of affairs, even if the government claimed to put that money back into services for women. Furthermore, tax evasion runs rampant in the sex trade.
Women’s Decisions?
We support the empowerment of women and their individual rights to choose how to conduct their lives. However, one must examine the overall context in which decisions to enter or stay in the sex trade are made. Often women’s choices are constrained by financial considerations. There are more often than not economically threatening consequences framing a woman’s decision. The situation is somewhat analogous to sexual assault and consent. The woman did not truly consent if there were conditions that propelled her to do so against her will. We believe it would not be a woman’s will to sell her body if she had other options. Whereas the user or consumer wants to be there, we believe most providers do not. Hence, the unequal relationship that frames the activity. We don’t live in a value-free society – society continues to legitimate and value male privilege and men’s use of women’s bodies as sex objects.
What if a woman does have other options but chooses prostitution anyway? At the risk of being patronizing, we would still have difficulty accepting such a decision and resulting occupation as empowering. Prostitution enslaves, degrades, oppresses and disempowers women more than any other conceivable profession. We believe women who think otherwise have unclear consciousness, perhaps created by low self-esteem or self-worth, and/or historical experiences of sexual mistreatment or abuse.
Criminalize the Demand
In order to eradicate prostitution, we believe it is necessary to curb the demand for it, created mostly by male consumers. Criminalizing acts on the part of the user or consumer, whether male or female, such as the requesting, procuring, or buying of sexual services would be a positive step toward this goal.
De-criminalize the Supply
While we want to ultimately eradicate prostitution, we recognize that many individuals rely on it as a means to earn an income. We do not feel it is appropriate to criminalize women for acts engaged in due to circumstances that are largely beyond their control, such as unemployment coupled with rising prices, and cuts to social services and social assistance. While we prefer to use empowering language, we do see prostitutes as victims of a skewed system who do not deserve to be punished.
The Criminal Code should be revised to eliminate the criminalization of the provider and maintain the criminalization of the requester/user/buyer of sexual services, and people living off the avails of prostitution, whether male or female.
The Need for Support
If women are going to avoid or exit prostitution, a reduction in consumer demand is not enough. The economic and social realities of women must be addressed. The changes to the Criminal Code must be accompanied by a proliferation of support services for women who want to exit the sex industry as well as broad-sweeping changes to social policy that would minimize the economically-driven compulsion of women to enter the industry in the first place. Matters of employment, social services, and social assistance must be addressed by all levels of government. Some have suggested that some of the funds for such services and reforms could be obtained from the seized assets of the present-day sex industry. We recognize that these reforms are likely distant and will need to be hard-fought, but if the alternative is continued prostitution and even the legalization thereof, we must keep our sights on these much-needed reforms.
Not only does legalization appear largely ineffective in contributing to the achievement of the laudable goals of harm-reduction and/or eradicating prostitution, but it would also institutionalize and legitimize practices that are degrading, oppressive, disempowering, and life-threatening, and that further entrench inequality between women and men. We believe women would benefit more from the criminalization of demand and the decriminalization of supply, coupled with meaningful economic and social support, than from the legalization of an activity that few would choose rationally and of their unconstrained free will to engage in if they could avail themselves of other opportunities and support.