A couple of years ago, Ottawa Police decided to really start cracking down on prostitution so they’ve been conducting monthly “sweeps” of certain communities (usually tipped off by a member of that community). In a two-day, undercover operation last week they arrested 14 people — 12 johns and two women, with 16 criminal charges and one provincial charge being laid.
The johns have to go to john school. I’ve often wondered what john school is exactly. Do they teach people how to buy sex for money legally and safely? Because prostitution has never been illegal in Canada – just stuff like communicating for the purposes of prostitution, soliciting, keeping a common bawdy house, procuring, and living off the avails of prostitution. So it’s okay to buy and sell sex, but it’s a mystery as to how that’s possible to do legally.
Anyway, they don’t teach johns any of that in the one-day course; because that would make little bit of sense, wouldn’t it? Some of you may have first-hand knowledge and can correct me, but from what I’ve read, john school is more like one really long finger-wagging sermon about the evils of prostitution. They try to scare men off of ever paying for sex by telling them horror stories about the lives of prostitutes and the dangers of consorting with them. (As an interesting side note, only men caught trying to buy sex from women have ever been sent to john school. No male client of a male prostitute has gone through the program in Canada.)
From the Canadian Institute for Health Research (CIHR) and the British Columbia Medical Services Foundation (BCMSF) John’s Voice Survey
- The average john has paid for sex anywhere from once to 5,000 times, starting at an average age of 27
- The majority are employed full time with the largest group (25%) indicating an income of more than $100,000 a year. 56% made $60,000 or more per year
- The largest group involved in buying sex are those in business, finance or administration, at 17%, followed by people in trades and transport at 12%, with those in the natural and applied science fields at 11.6%
- Of those, while 61.6% professed knowledge of Canada’s prostitution laws, further questioning indicated only 24.2% actually had a full knowledge of the laws
- Of the johns surveyed, 86.1% stated that they generally prefer to be with a female sex seller, 10.5% with a male, 1.3% with transgender or other, and the remaining 2.1% had no preference
- The majority of johns prefer in-call, escort services and massage parlours. A minority of participants indicated a preference for brothels or micro-brothels, clubs, bars or online avenues
- The majority of johns neither drank (73.5%) nor did drugs (84.7%) prior to buying sex
From this survey and from sex trade worker accounts, most men buying sex are regular guys who perhaps are not interested in maintaining, don’t have time, or are unable to maintain or find a relationship. Or perhaps they are men looking for some sort of sexual activity or outlet outside of their relationship.
So, john school is stupid. It might scare a few nice, timid guys off and it might make some other guys look in less police-patrolled places for sex, but other than that it’s a big waste of time and taxpayer money.
And so are prostitution sweeps. First, they only target street prostitutes (about 15% of the overall sex trade) who are already in a very vulnerable trade. Then by “sweeping” them (like so much rubbish) out of a community’s more visible areas, they force them to ply their trade in less populated, more dangerous areas. Of course, I could be wrong and once arrested; a street prostitute will see the error of her ways and will trot off and get a “nice” job. But I doubt it.
This is really what this all this craziness over prostitution is all about, isn’t it? For some reason, in our society, we look at prostitution as not a “nice” thing to do. It’s okay to pay people to come into our private homes and clean up after us. It’s okay to pay people to massage us and make us feel good. It’s okay to pay people to wax the hair off our genitals to make us look good. But it’s not okay to pay people to provide sexual satisfaction? In other cultures and in many religions, the “Sacred Prostitute” was looked upon with honor and respect.
If people are in the business willingly and aren’t being exploited any more than people in a lot of other jobs are — and let’s face it, people are exploited in many, many jobs — can we we agree, that consenting adults should be allowed to buy and sell sex safely, legally without harassment, discrimination, victimization or violence?
We may still hesitate to support the decriminalization of the sex trade because of issues surrounding the conflation of sex work with violence, organized crime, human trafficking or sex trafficking or child prostitution.
The Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and other countries where prostititution has been decriminalized continue have serious problem with this, so they are pointed to as an examples of what happens when we decriminalize the sex trade.
Of course all this is going on now anyway. I don’t think there is any way to make prostitution a profession as safe and sunny as Kindergarten teacher. But decriminalizing it will at least allow sex trade workers to seek help from police and/or medical professionals for abuse, health or other concerns without fear of being arrested.
We obviously can’t reform prostitution laws in this country without also putting in place effective exit services like: a guaranteed livable income; public education campaigns; drug/alcohol addiction treatment; job re-training; and, counselling to help those that are not in the sex trade willingly and need to get out without fear of violence from pimps and traffickers. (Surveys indicate that 90-95% of women in the sex trade say they would get out with such assistance).
A decriminalization position emphasizes the labour rights, health and safety rights, and human rights of sex workers,” says York sociology professor Deborah Brock who has published extensively on sex work. “It recognizes their ability to implement standards for the self-regulation of their trade, including forming professional associations governed by codes of conduct, rights and responsibilities, and to form or join trade unions so that they may collectively bargain the conditions under which they are prepared to work.
Exchanging money or goods for sex has been around as long as human beings have been around. Why do we continue to think policing it is the answer? Policing the sex trade makes it a criminal activity and encourages all sorts of peripheral criminal activity. Our ridiculous laws are most definitely not “stopping” the sex trade. Not allowing sex trade workers legitimacy, allows them to continue to be victimized.
Here are some things we can do to try and put an end to this foolishness and help those who choose to work in the sex trade industry be respected and valued for the difficult work they do.
- Think about your own attitudes toward sex work.
- Write to your MP and tell him/her that you want to see the prostitution laws reformed.
- Support organizations challenging the sex work laws (e.g.: POWER Ottawa, Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC).
- Ask politicians to develop employment programs, addiction treatment facilities, and support antipoverty initiatives in general to assist those who are not in the sex trade willingly.
- Report crimes against sex workers.
- Demand that your local police stop laying charges against sex trade workers and other crimes of “morality”.
Despite, or maybe because of this long, rambling post, you might, correctly, point out that reforming our current laws is not magically going to turn the sex trade into safe, pleasant, crime-free, respectable profession.
No, but what we have now is not working and handled properly, and in conjunction with sex trade workers, it must improve current conditions. And it might, for instance, help the some 3 million North American teens lured into prostitution every year.
Some Questions to Consider
- Is there any compelling reason not to decriminalize prostitution?
- Would decriminalizing prostitution in Canada lead to an increase in sex tourism, human trafficking, and/or the sex trade overall?
- Is there really any way to reform the sex trade that will make it safe and non-exploitative?
- Sweden has chosen to deal with sex trade issues by prosecuting (with severe penalities) pimps, traffickers and johns and offering exit services to prostitutes. After 10 years, they report that this has reduced prostitution in Sweden by 40%. Is this a viable option? What happens to those that want to work in the industry but now have seriously reduced access to clients?
- Is it realistic or even desirable to try and eliminate prostitution entirely? Are there any benefits to maintaining a sex trade in this society?
This post is long, but it’s going to stay up for a couple of days because I’d really like to get a thoughful discussion going on this topic.