Monday, November 15, 2010

Beyond Morality - Should Prostitution Be Legalized?

Debates aside for a moment, how many people loved Pretty Woman? I'll admit it. I think I've watched this movie over ten times. I remember sitting in my mother's clinic when I was in middle school, bored and waiting for her to finish her last few appointments, when the TV in the waiting room started to play Pretty Woman. Seriously, Richard Gere? Captivating. It was also the first time I ever saw a Julia Roberts movie, and I remember loving the scene where she owned that catty salesperson on her second shopping trip. Made. Of. Win.

Yet I'm sure we all know that the sex trade is more than Hollywood's glamorized depictions. I attended a discussion panel this evening on campus (presented by the Queen's Law and Public Policy club) regarding the legalization of prostitution in reference to the recent Bedford v. Canada case. On September 28, 2010 Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice gave a verdict that essentially struck down anti-prostitution laws in Canada. A good overview of the case can be found here. Panelists for tonight's discussion included Alan Young who represented the apellants in Bedford v. Canada. I have to say that he presented a pretty compelling case in defense of de-criminalization. It was an such an awesome (and intense) discussion, I'm glad I attended.

From the outset, I'll admit that I really don't know where I stand on this issue. Tonight's panel educated me on the debate, but it left me on the fence. I know, my moderation isn't helping you decide either, is it? After hearing the panelists from tonight's discussion, I'll admit that I sympathize with both sides of the debate. What can I say? I can't make up my mind. Unfortunately, I'm not very familiar with the case, nor have I studied this issue at great lengths. Dear readers, I can only offer you the following brief ideas regarding an issue I don't know too much about.

In the words of organizations (such as the Catholic Civil Rights League and the Christian Legal Fellowship) who challenged the case, does Bedford v. Canada undermine Canada's social and moral fabric? Alan Young doesn't think so. According to Young, the case "didn't aim to solve a moral question." In fact, we need to consider this as a legal issue. By de-criminalizing prostitution, the law is being used to defend women from a profession that undermines their safety. Yet in the words of Natasha Falle (Executive Director of Sex Trade 101), prostitution shouldn't be legalized. We shouldn't de-criminalize a profession that isn't healthy, a profession and business transaction based on violence.

I suppose (actually, I don't doubt) that many consider (the legalization of) prostitution from the perspective of morality. Growing up in a devout Pentecostal household, I completely understand the basis of Christian groups who opposed the Bedford decision. Oh, I completely, absolutely understand. From a personal standpoint, I can see why individuals see the issue from the context of moral and religious inclinations. In fact, my mother is probably appalled that I've written this blog post.

Yet in the context of "rights talk" (Professor Ran Hirschl's influence, what can I say?), perhaps we should consider this issue beyond the context of morality and religiosity. I recognize that we're discussing this in the context of rights, of legal protections (or lack thereof). And here, in brief summary, were the arguments presented tonight:

Beyond the debate on the morality of the profession (let's set aside whether the sex trade is "wrong" or "right"), we are talking about rights, about the safety of women (many who are underaged) and children engaged in the profession. In the words of Alan Young, constitutional law is about protecting those who are vulnerable, those who actually opt to work in the trade by choice. Young pointed out that some would argue that sex workers don't choose the profession. But as a sex worker in attendance tonight claimed, some women do. Financial and material gain is a large incentive, whether you need the finances or not. Don't women who choose this profession deserve the protection of the law? Without providing these rights, we defeat our social contract to protect, to defend. And in the words of Alan Young, "personal morality should therefore take a backseat."

Beyond the debate on the morality of the profession, can't rights and supports for those engaged in the sex trade be obtained elsewhere? In the words of Natasha Falle, those in the sex trade seek material gain because it's a real job. But it isn't a healthy job. It's a job based on violence and fear, and the legalization of prostitution only legitimizes this violence. Many who enter the sex trade are underaged teens or young mothers who cannot support their children from welfare cheques alone. How, then, is sex trade a choice when it is an arguably appealing financially viable option? Secondly, the de-criminalization of prostitution also de-criminalizes men (read: pimps) who (perhaps violently) reap gains from the trade.

Can we ever unite the idea of morality with legal rights for sex workers? I'm not sure. What I do know is that while I sympathize with the struggle to see the issue beyond the context of moral judgement, I also sympathize with the idea of "rights talk." With the idea of safety and, by association, legal protection. I'm on the fence, folks. And, dear readers, that's all I can give you.

"I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights."
- Desmond Tutu

"You can ask the universe for all the signs you want, but ultimately, we see what we want to see when we're ready to see it."
- How I Met Your Mother (Season 5)


  1. If you are interested in looking at both perspectives try this website:
    I find it interesting the person that is for legalizing it (not the lawyer) is known to be a pimp herself beating women. It puts a different spin on things when you know that. Why does she want it legal?