Can prostitution be made safe? The question has landed again in our national conversation following the murder of a woman in Quebec City. The short answer is no. Those who support the full decriminalization of prostitution as a way to make the industry safer fail to acknowledge the inherent violence of prostitution and ignore the context in which prostitution occurs. The only way to end the violence of prostitution is to end prostitution. One of the ways we can work toward this is by strengthening the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA).
Last month, Eustachio Gallese allegedly murdered Marylène Lévesque in a hotel room in Quebec City. Gallese had been out on day parole while serving a life sentence for brutally murdering Chantal Deschênes, a woman he had been married to, in 2004. Gallese’s parole officer had allowed him to hire women to satisfy his “sexual urges” despite the fact the parole board felt that Gallese remained a threat to women.
It is a criminal offence to purchase sexual services in Canada, but it is not an offence to sell those services. It is illegal for a third party, such as massage parlours and escort agencies, to profit from the sale of sexual services. Still, the violence of unwanted sex remains whether prostitution is regulated or unregulated. “Sex work” is the default conceptualization of prostitution. This means that exchanging sex acts for payment is seen as a job. “Sex work” means that women are obligated to regularly engage in unwanted sex acts with men they do not sexually desire as part of their job. This is the foundational violence of prostitution and it cannot be reduced or eliminated.
All women have the right to live free of male violence and the threat of male violence. This includes being free to say yes or no to sexual partners and to sexual acts without guilt, fear or consequence. Prostitution does not allow women the freedom to choose their partners and sex acts – this is how “paying for a service” works. When “sex work” is tolerated or promoted, so is the message that it is entirely acceptable for men to demand particular sex acts from women.
Proponents of full decriminalization often state that decriminalization would make prostitution “safer” by allowing women more time to “screen” their “clients.” The idea that women are able to tell which man will be violent and when is a myth that serves only to victim-blame. When we accept the lie that a woman can tell which man will harm her, the weight is on her shoulders to protect herself. Should she be attacked, it’s her fault because she “screened” incorrectly. But the reality is that no woman is able to predetermine whether she will be assaulted by a man, no woman is ever responsible for violence committed against her, and even those on the parole board with plenty of time to “screen” were not able to determine that Gallese wouldn’t harm another woman.
In 2014, Canada adopted a partial version of the Women’s Equality Model of Prostitution Law (or Nordic Model). This model was first implemented in Sweden and is also used in other countries. It has three main components: 1) The criminalization of pimping and the purchase of sex, and the decriminalization of the selling of sex. 2) It provides robust preventative social services that also work to help women leave prostitution. 3) It educates the public about prostitution as a form of male violence against women that impacts the status of women.
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Canada has failed to adopt the entire model and to consistently implement the law as it stands now. Yes, Canada has recognized that prostitution is an inherently exploitive system – the purchase of sex has been criminalized, and the selling of sex decriminalized. But the country has yet to adopt or implement robust social services and public education, the other components of the Women’s Equality Model.
It is disingenuous to suggest that Canada’s prostitution laws are to blame for the deaths of women in prostitution, including that of Lévesque. The blame lies with the men who murder women. Canada’s prostitution laws are a start – they send the message that purchasing sex is not acceptable behaviour. Legislation, however, is only one part of the solution to this global abandonment of mostly poor, Indigenous, and women of colour to “sex work.” We must take a stand against men’s entitlement to women’s bodies, improve the material conditions of women’s lives, and educate ourselves about the connections between prostitution and women’s oppression. Prostitution, like all forms of male violence, harms women and must be abolished.
This article is part of the Improving Canada’s response to sexualized violence special feature.
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