Is it possible to sell your body without buying into a system of exploitation?
Canadian federal legislators have recently proposed a bill called The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which decriminalizes prostitution unless it is in a public area where children might be affected. It also decriminalizes advertising for sexual services, so long as it is the prostitute who is doing the advertising. Both pimping and buying sex, on the other hand, continue to be criminal offenses.
The purpose of the bill is to target those who contribute to the exploitation of prostitutes rather than the prostitutes themselves, who are often forced into their occupation by difficult circumstances. The bill reconceptualizes the nature of prostitution, challenging the idea that men have the right to purchase sex and providing money (they have established a $20 million fund!) for exiting services to help women trapped in a system of prostitution. It’s really great to have the exploitative nature of prostitution legislatively acknowledged. The bill cites the “social harm” which disproportionate numbers of “women and children” suffer due to the “the objectification of the human body and the commodification of sexual activity.” The problem is urgent, and “it is important to denounce and prohibit the purchase of sexual services because it creates a demand for prostitution.”
The bill has been critiqued because of its locative specificity: it criminalizes communicating for the purposes of prostitution in a public place "where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present." Janine Benedet, a lawyer for the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of prostitution, attests that this caveat, which will apply primarily to the largely aboriginal population of prostitutes on the street, “continues to provide a hook for police to push them around to different neighborhoods and to target” them. "If we really believe that women in prostitution are overwhelmingly exploited and coerced into prostitution through poverty, sexism, and racism, the location of where they are being exploited should not determine whether or not we criminalize them."
Keeping those critiques in mind, it is nevertheless important to acknowledge how big of a step this is. The decriminalization of prostitution will allow women, having been forced into a difficult economic situation that forces them to use their bodies as commodities, to approach police if they feel that they are in danger and, hopefully, will help them to find alternative means of livelihood.
We’ll have to wait and see how the bill plays out, but we can only hope that it will help to create social change in the treatment of women by reducing the prevalence of the harmful practice of prostitution.
Images courtesy of belfasttelegraph.co.uk, noisyroom.net, and lawnow.org.