Blaming the victims

By Gauntlet Editorial Board

AIDS Calgary released a position paper last week arguing for the decriminalization of practices surrounding prostitution. Although prostitution is currently legal in Canada, nearly all acts associated with it– living on the money made through prostitution, working in a bawdy house, soliciting prostitution in public– means that prostitutes can face jail time if caught performing those acts. Selling one’s body subjugates prostitutes. It’s demeaning, dangerous work which people are forced into through drug addiction, a lack of money, or physical abuse. But jailing prostitutes isn’t the solution. This paper therefore agrees with AIDS Calgary’s stance that prostitution should be decriminalized.

The differences between decriminalization and legalization are significant. The former means removing the harsh penalties prostitutes face, but may still allow for deterrents such as fines. Legalizing prostitution, however, would allow prostitutes (and pimps) to solicit sex with no legal ramifications. It’s an important difference because the goal of decriminalization isn’t to promote prostitution– the goal is to make it easier for prostitutes to get out of that line of work or, if that isn’t possible, to allow them to work in safer conditions.

These goals can be achieved in two major ways. First, the harsh penalties associated with prostitution mean that prostitutes are often working their way through the legal system­– either through jail, parole, or another stage. The penalties haven’t deterred prostitutes from working. Instead, they incur legal fees they can’t afford or criminal records which make it difficult to seek legitimate employment. The cycle thus repeats itself.

The second way decriminalization will help is through allowing prostitutes to work more safely. Without the threat of incarceration, prostitutes will be more likely to approach police to report abuse. Currently, they are reluctant to report “bad dates” because they risk being charged themselves. Treating prostitutes as criminals makes their job much more dangerous. It also prevents them from getting the help they need.

Decriminalization, of course, isn’t a complete solution. Programs are necessary to help prostitutes remove themselves from an unwanted lifestyle; so too are ways of helping prostitutes deal with abuse, disease and stigma. Decriminalization is one of many steps necessary for these goals to be achieved.

Supporters of decriminalization are not committed to endorsing or promoting prostitution as a legitimate form of employment. This is a common but false claim. Indeed, this paper wholeheartedly agrees that prostitution is a terrible practice that should not continue. We have seen, however, that criminalization isn’t the answer. Legalization can make problems worse too– the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands demonstrates this. Instead, the justice system needs to get tough on human-traffickers, pimps and those who use violence to force people into prostitution. Otherwise, we’re blaming the victims.

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