Saturday, October 24, 2015

On Sex Work

Bill C-36, which passed into law almost a year ago, begins like this:
"Whereas the Parliament of Canada has grave concerns about the exploitation that is inherent in prostitution and the risks of violence posed to those who engage in it...recognizes the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual activity...it is important to protect human dignity and the equality of all Canadians by discouraging prostitution..."
The new law criminalizes buying sex, advertising, or otherwise benefiting from the sex trade (minimum cash fines and up to a maximum of five years in jail - ten for pimping), but it doesn't criminalize selling sex if only the sex worker benefits. It's theoretically a move to protect sex workers, except it limits their ability to advertise without walking the streets, and it limits their ability to discuss services in a public place. It took out restrictions for running bawdy houses, but it can charge men as they enter or leave.

But is prostitution necessarily exploitative?

Marlena Evans has an interesting piece at The Toast about working as a prostitute in order to pay her way through university. I'll look at the issues from the position of the prostitutes and the clients separately. I'm assuming it's a given that trafficking and pimping are obviously heinous acts that should be shut down by all means possible, but it's the grey areas that need a second look. And I'm not touching the potential for infidelity involved. Lots of things make it easier to cheat but aren't illegal. My question is: Is it necessarily exploitative or harmful to society if some people offer sex in exchange for money?


The Prostitutes: Is sex work necessary for women to survive, and is it necessarily harmful?

Evans presents her own case as proof that prostitution isn't necessarily exploitative, or at least, no more exploitative than a standard minimum wage job. And higher wages means she can work fewer hours.

She undermines the stereotype of prostitutes as struggling to feed their children or a drug-addiction. She's doing it to advance herself at school, a reason that's seen by her clients somehow as selfish.
"...people laugh about student poverty — they joke about cavities and scurvy as though one’s early twenties are merely a dry run for real life and one cannot actually starve to death."
She explains how working in the sex trade is significantly better than working in fast food.  I've had many students over the years share tales of working for exploitative managers that break ESA laws openly relating how unlikely it is that any kid will risk even a crappy job to complain - because the jobs are all crappy.
"If I got sick too often working at the fast food place, I had to provide a doctor’s note. I suffered abuse from customers who lumped me in with the automated machines. My gifts and talents were utterly squandered as I stood, sometimes for hours at a time, staring at the door, waiting for someone to come in and put me to use, knowing that if I got caught reading or writing or even listening to music I would be reprimanded. All of this and I wasn’t making enough money to pay rent and utilities in the same month."
Objectification and degradation anyone? We have a workforce of wasted talents following corporate-driven orders to behave in specific ways during their shifts (and sometimes beyond) for less than a living wage. We have many university students - the best and the brightest - who have to work 20-hours/week to pay rent and tuition even though it affects their grades and any ability to reach their potential. These are real problems in our country. I'm all for getting rid of exploitation, but it's a red herring to suggest it's just a problem in one type of business.

Some argue that a guaranteed minimum income will reduce society to a bunch of layabouts squandering their talents, but Evan's example shows quite the opposite. Some people are currently being held back from honing their talents because of their economic situation, so a guaranteed income would increase their ability to add to the greatness of our people. One Canadian study found this financial plan increased health and emotional well-being, and that the only people who quit their jobs were new moms and students, arguably the people with the greatest potential to benefit society if allowed to focus their talents without fear of economic reprisal.

Evans also gets at a different means of exploitation:
"I’ve been assaulted by countless men. By a man who was a client? Only once."
We have a vision of sex workers as throwaway women allowed to or willing to or coerced into bearing the brunt of assault, which somehow acts to keep the rest of us safe. But considering sex work as the one place that exploits is an illusion. Sexual harassment and assault is still a problem in and out of many fields of work. There are worse jobs women can do that nobody questions. Sexual oppression is in the fabric of our society. I'm not convinced the existence of the voluntary sex trade, as Evans describes it, increases that reality.

ETA: By way of contrast, see Hedges interview with Rachel Moran who calls prostitution "being raped for a living." Her experience isn't of voluntary sex work however, and I believe, as Evans suggests, that "voluntary sex work" is not an oxymoron. I believe it's condescending to suggest that all sex work is necessarily coerced even if prostitutes believe they've made a free choice. To honour people's different experiences, to believe women, means believing that they have the ability to distinguish a free choice from coercion. It's insulting to portray women as unwitting victims when they themselves feel empowered to choose sex work over fast food. Moran argues, “The nature of sex is mutuality, And where you don’t have mutuality, you have sexual abuse.” I'm not sure what "mutuality" means, but perhaps I'll dissect that quote another day.


The Clients: Will prostitution always be a reality, and is that necessarily a bad thing?

With prostitution available, people (predominantly men) can get a physical and emotional connection otherwise lacking in their lives. Many people are unable to find a mate or any physical contact at all with random strangers. They shouldn't have to live without any human connection because they're deemed less desirable by those in close proximity. This is an argument that many people can accept, especially after seeing The Sessions.

But some people seek out a prostitute for the lack of constraints this type of relationship has on their lives. They want to do something beyond the boundaries of a monogamous relationships: to have a variety of partners or acts available, to avoid any emotional responsibility, or even just to avoid having to clean themselves up a bit. When Hugh Grant was with Elizabeth Hurley and got caught with a significantly less beautiful prostitute, people speculated that Hurley wouldn't "go downtown." The infidelity aside, what makes it wrong to seek out sexual release in a specific way without courtship and commitment?

It seems we can accept the need some men have for the sex trade only if all other avenues have been exhausted. It should be a last resort for people in need, not a first choice for guys who like some convenience, variety, or just don't want to put down the video controller long enough to develop behaviours conducive to dating. But is this just a puritanical belief or a valid ethical position? Is this simple, easy sex option harmful to society in general?

A couple years ago, Wente wrote an article suggesting that men won't grow up and fulfill their potential if they don't have to work for sex. I'd completely write that off except that famed psychologist  Zimbardo furthers a similar thesis. The easy availability of sex today might prevent some men from rising to the challenge of getting a date, and, some argue, that challenge is what brings men to live up to their potential thus furthering society. But I'm not convinced that's a problem. I'm going on an assumption that most men who would only improve themselves for the reward of a stable sex life a relationship might offer are not necessarily the kind of men who are on the verge of curing cancer. I don't think it's the case that we will lose half the potential of the world if men can get laid easily. I agree that this focus might be a concern for some boys, but I don't agree with Wente and Zimbardo that it should be a concern for society.

Zimbardo laments the demise of boys, that their test scores and admittance to high-ranking schools is lower than girls now. That doesn't necessarily affect society if the strongest students are still working hard, which I imagine they are. From what I've seen, when students are exceptional, they're driven by the rewards of personal efficacy in their field - of being able to finally solve that problem. Accolades and external rewards are secondary. They don't need stickers to keep working as children or a woman's civilizing touch to keep them productive citizens as adults. From that it might follow that in schools today with fewer males entering, all things being equal (which they're not), we'd see a pretty even number of men and women getting the top marks. If it's only lower down the honour roll that will see an influx of more feminine names, then we're unlikely to suffer a loss of ingenuity as predicted. I suggest that the biggest impact easy access to sex might have in society is a lack of available partners for hetero women, but perhaps it's an effective means to separate the wheat from the chaff for them in the dating pool.

If one goal in our competitive society is for workers to be as productive as possible, on-call to answer e-mails 24/7, then having uncomplicated sex lives can foster this productive work habit. I don't think that type of life is necessarily most conducive to happiness or well-being, but if it works for some, then who benefits by making it illegal?

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