Does Getting Prostitution Out of the Dark Make it Safer?

The Documentary “Buying Sex” was based on sex trade industry in Canada. Over the course of several years, Alan Young, a Canadian lawyer, fought to decriminalize the purchase of sexual services and create a legal framework to protect sex workers.

He sought out three women (two of whom participated in the documentary) who are now retired from the trade and used their positive experiences in the business to promote this change in legislation. They were successful. As part of Alan Young’s victory speech, he acknowledges that not every woman is capable of benefiting from this new law. He and other supporters of the radical change in legislation looked to the sex trade industry in New Zealand to show what a positive change legalization of sex work has become.

In New Zealand, members of the sex industry acknowledged that the demand has always existed and the demand will continue to exist because sex is human nature and men have an instinctual drive to have sex. One man interviewed suggested that prostitutes keep families together because a man can “get his jollies” and will go back to his family/wife. A prominent New Zealand pornographic photographer and businessman discussed his positive experience in the growing industry. Part of his interview included a sit down conversation with his fiancé. However, his demeaning interaction with her perpetuated the stereotype that he was trying to argue against. He spoke on her behalf and the jokingly gave her permission to speak and then interrupted her. The issue of heterosexual power is also talked about in “Sex and Power” where Dworkin and MacKinnon say “men define what sex is, and they have defined it in terms of men’s dominance and women’s submission. [They] claim that women then come to understand their role within hetero-sex as passive and accommodating” (NSS p.44). While he tries to say women should be embracing their sexual subjectivity and engaging in what sexual acts they want to, he is still controlling his fiancé. He makes it seem as though women are supposed to engage in acts that men deem fit because society gives them control in the relationship. Control is especially prevalent in New Zealand’s sex work. Male “pimps” regulate what is going with their workers and what freedoms they have. The New Zealand sex worker says that she likes her job because it is not as restricting as a minimum wage job. In fact I believe that is more controlling. Women are just objectified and told what acts to engage in. They do not get to actually engage in their own sexual subjectivity. Prostitutes and women in general are expected to be submissive to men.

Even though many more women are joining the industry in New Zealand, the people addressing the porn business there briefly touch on the reason why they begin this work. It is an economic trap. Female students begin paying off student loans or believe they have no other option for earning a living. It is seen in parts of the documentary as a choice of profession but in most cases that is not true. It is hard to get out of the cycle and find a new way of life that can offer as much financial compensation. The dilemma starts with the buyer. Without demand there would not be supply. Researches have also established that the percent of men who buy sex varies greatly by culture and therefore concluded that buying sex is a learned behavior that can be unlearned, although this would take a huge social change.

At the same time the legalization of sex work in New Zealand was occurring, Sweden was also changing its laws. Sweden criminalized the buying of sex. Proponents of the new Swedish legislation believe that only charging the buyer for federal offenses has reduced acts of violence and saved women’s lives. The change in the legal system is seen as a positive one because women are able to come forward about the crimes committed against them without risking punishment. I believe similar legislation should be in place in America. There is an obligation to help people when crimes occur, unfortunately that happens all to often with sex workers. The fact that sex work is illegal causes reports submitted by prostitutes about crimes against them to be disregarded or seen as not as credible, which shouldn’t be the case.

Opponents of the proposed Canadian legislation include leaders of women’s groups who believe that this kind of statute perpetuates the risks and dangers associated with the abuse of selling flesh. Trisha Baptie, a former prostitute, argues that there are two classes of sex trade workers and the legislation that Alan Young fought so hard for will only create a greater divide between those who work indoors and those who walk the streets – creating a greater risk for those who walk the streets. Their argument rests on the concern for women’s safety both mentally and physically and claims that this legislation validates the demand for selling women by decriminalizing men.

Both side of the argument focus on creating a safer environment for prostitutes where they are able to come forth with what has happened to them without stereotypes and prejudice. Would the three plaintiffs in the case Benton v Canada have come forward (either individually or collectively) if Alan Young had not sought them out? Why were so many of the proponents of legalizing the sale of sex hiding in the dark and disguising their voices; if they so strongly believe in what they are doing, why hide?

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One thought on “Does Getting Prostitution Out of the Dark Make it Safer?

  1. It’s true that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, and I honestly do not have a problem with it so long as the prostitutes are all consenting and of age. I think society just has a difficult time grasping that these people are comfortable with their sexualities and can make a job of it. Safety is certainly an issue, but the job itself I don’t think is a problem. I think making prostitution legal can provide the prostitutes certain rights they would not have under the control of their pimps. Also when it comes to the johns, it’s not the prostitutes’ fault that husbands and boyfriends are cheating on their partners. I know that’s a big reason why prostitution is often looked down upon.

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