April 30, 2014

Turning a Blind Eye Means Turning Your Back

For a long time I have had an intense interest in the issue of sex workers’ rights and harm reduction. I’ve found that it’s common for our society to generalize about and patronize the people who are engaged in sex work; without hesitation we label all those who participate in the sex industry as “undesirable“, or are “victimized” and “lost” people who did not freely choose to engage in the business of sex. Rarely does someone stop to ponder who these people are and how they came to participate in prostitution in the first place. It would seem that humanity is perfectly content with their preconceived notions of sex work, totally ignorant of the real problems faced by people in the sex industry. This ignorance is very apparent in Margaret Wentes’ article “Forget Legalization – Just Turn a Blind Eye.” This way of thinking only glosses over the most well known problems in sex work instead of looking critically at them.

            A common argument against the legalization of prostitution is that legalized prostitution will actually increase crime rates instead of lowering them. This is the idea that Ms. Wente presents in her article, quoting people such as Amsterdam councillor Karina Schaapmen who states that she believes that the red light district is “a cesspit” filled with “serious criminality,” the “exploitation of women,” and “social distress.” Wente adds on the rise in illegal brothels following their legalization in Sydney, Australia, and she cites a study done by London Metropolitan University which claims that legalization is actually a “pull factor” for sex trafficking and “sexual tourism.” These claims by political leaders and academics about the dangers of legalized prostitution definitely damage the businesses’ hopes for legalization. It looks as though the sex industry is just a magnet for the most abhorrent human behaviour no matter the legality. I am forced, however, to wonder whether these problems are the result of ignorance as opposed to the legal system.

            Ponder this for a minute; there are two forms of sex work currently legal in Canada, stripping and pornography. Like prostitution it’s possible for the men and women engaged in these two professions to be exploited and abused, despite being perfectly legal businesses. But how often do you hear the government, feminist or advocacy groups really addressing the issues faced by strippers and porn stars? Now I don’t mean the common arguments put forward by anti-porn activists who only fight to ban the businesses outright. Their endeavours actually cause more harm than good to the people in sex work because the activist’s answer to the problem rarely acknowledges the specific needs of the workers. They do not support harm reduction, the handing out of condoms, educating the workers in the dangers of drugs and the importance of healthcare, and seeing to it that they have a safe, clean place to practice their craft. Instead, activists choose to fuel the sympathy and fear felt by the public, who, as a result, have come to see paid sex in all its forms as an act against humanity. What they never seem to address are the real causes of exploitation and abuse that exists within the sex industry; this is the issue that is being ignored because it is so unpopular to look at sex work as though it were a legitimate business in desperate need of better regulation.

            I see the stigma of sex work as the reason why no one dares to take a good look at the needs of the business. It is a stigma that is spread by the most vocal anti sex work activists who claim to fight to save the women who are “trapped” in sex work, by our governments who hang on every word these activists say whether it’s logically sound or not, and by the public who will just spout off whatever an authoritative figure has told them. We as a people have become so comfortable with having our beliefs fed to us that we can’t even stand to look at sex as something common in our society, let alone as a commercialized service. I do agree that even if prostitution is legalized, there will still be problems; just like any vice people will find ways around the law. Minors hiring a “boot” for alcohol is an example of this. But I don’t blame the vices for these problems; I blame our lack of suitable information. I blame the fact that we refuse to look at all sides of an issue and educate based on the unbiased information gathered from that issue. We, instead, choose to educate based on a black and white world that’s incapable of understanding the complexities of the issues at hand, spreading misinformation and fear mongering just to make sure that the public dare not have a dissenting opinion about “immoral” acts.

            The truth is that there are people who enter this business by choice. Most people who become prostitutes do it because of their financial needs, and you do have to admit that it is one of the best paying jobs a person can take. We often imagine these people as drug addicted and working the streets so that they can support their drug habit, but this isn’t always the case. As Wente mentioned, a prostitute may actually be a student doing what they can to get themselves through school. Other examples might be struggling young mothers, or people who are deeply in debt; almost anyone could enter prostitution as a means to support themselves. Is it a great choice? Not really, but is it any worse than working minimum wage at McDonalds? Still others might become prostitutes purely because they want to do it, people like the dominatrix 
Terri-Jean Bedford. Sex is not reserved for only those in relationships; there are plenty of people who are willing to give away that “most intimate” part of themselves for free, so why is it so wrong to try make money off of it? There dozens of different kinds of people engaged in sex work; each person from a different background, gender and race. Each has a different story to tell, of their reasons for doing what they do and their experiences while doing it. Their opinions on their job matter just as much as our opinions do; so why are their voices not heard?

            We shouldn’t ignore the plight of sex workers because the very thought of the business makes us uncomfortable; we should look at it head on! When we step up to the more challenging aspects of life is when we really learn about the people around us, how they think and feel. In the case of prostitutes, consider for a second what it’s like to be in their position. They may be addicted to drugs, strapped for cash, trafficked, abused or without other options. They may also be participating in sex work of their own free will, for whatever reason. Do we honestly believe that ignoring their basic rights to safety,
a secure job, healthcare, and the authorities without fear is the better route? Then we are just as bad as those who apparently objectify these people, because in doing so we have just denied them their humanity.

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