Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ms. Smith's crusade misguided

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Manitoba Conservative MP Joy Smith says prostitution -- whether the provider is a high-price courtesan or a low-track drug addict -- leads to violence against women. In order to stop it, she wants to punish the buyers of the product, while the vendors would be re-educated, presumably to help them overcome the false consciousness that makes them believe prostitution is a legitimate career choice.

Ms. Smith is to be commended for her work in raising awareness about human trafficking, but her sweeping conclusion that all forms of prostitution must be stamped out is misguided.

Obviously children must be protected from the sex trade, drug addicts and the mentally ill need assistance, and those who are compelled to sell their bodies by pimps and traffickers must be rescued and their abusers prosecuted.

What Ms. Smith ignores, or cannot abide, however, is that some women actually choose of their own free will to work in the sex industry. Some in this group include university students, housewives, women in low-paying jobs and others who have decided to capitalize on their sexual power.

One group of sex-trade workers even won a landmark court case in Ontario that resulted in the laws against prostitution being struck down, a decision the federal government is appealing. Victims usually don't go to court to overturn laws intended to protect them, unless, as Ms. Smith seems to believe, they don't know their best interests because prostitution is a form of male dominance over women.

She cites the experience of Sweden, where visible prostitution was reduced following a 1999 law that criminalized the purchase of sex, but treated the salesperson as an innocent victim. Since then, police officers, judges and a cabinet minister have been arrested for paying for sex.

Although street prostitution may have declined in Sweden as a result of greater enforcement under the new law, there is evidence that the sex-for-sale business proliferated through the Internet and social media. Prostitution, the world's oldest and most determined profession, still exists in Sweden, then, despite draconian measures that can result in the loss of 50 days pay, as well as public shaming.

Ms. Smith, however, is probably correct in saying that women can be discouraged from selling their bodies to men who don't love them. But anything that is criminalized is likely to have a deterrent effect.

The real question is whether laws against prostitution hurt or help women. Well, it might help the women who want out, but criminalization also makes it much more dangerous for those who want in.

In the ruling that overturned prostitution laws, Justice Susan Himel said criminalization of the sex trade endangered the lives of women by forcing them to engage in clandestine transactions in shady locations.

Judge Himel also praised countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Germany that have decriminalized prostitution and endeavoured to regulate it for the safety of women and their customers.

That is the route that Canada should follow, while simultaneously expanding programs to help women who work on the street against their will or because they have no choice.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2011 A14

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