So a judge in Ontario has ruled that laws against prostitutes working in brothels, communicating about prostitution in public, or giving their money to other people are unconstitutional, because they make prostitution more dangerous.
The government disagree and are taking the case to the Canadian Supreme Court; if the ruling is upheld there, prostitution will be effectively legalised/decriminalised for the whole country. This has prompted Debate.
It seems to me this ruling, in itself, is something to welcome, insofar as it removes means by which the state harasses prostitutes and impedes their efforts to work as safely as possible. But I think there’s also space for reasonable disagreement between supporters of gender equality over what would ideally replace it.
Of course, some of the debate actually going on is not within that space for reasonable disagreement, such as this this article, which explains that
“…the kind of men who frequent prostitutes…don’t have a lot of respect for them on the whole. Nor should they. Being a prostitute is a shameful, indecent activity, and any sex worker who demands respect as a matter of course is fooling herself. She is not respectable. Politically correct people will say she is, but she isn’t.”
I had always thought that everyone should demand respect as a matter of course, but clearly that’s just political correctness (possibly gone mad). Indeed, in the same newspaper as the above article is another, arguing that it’s “time commodities got some respect“, which puts things in perspective.
I fear that positions on prostitution are often subtly influenced by this kind of bigotry, even when expressed in feminist terms. Factually, it seems that both these women, hoping to organise a workers’ co-operative in Vancouver, and mounting a similar legal appeal to the one in Ontario, and also women like Natasha Falle, publically opposing Tuesday’s ruling based on the trauma and exploitation she suffered, experienced the reality of prostitution. So the reality of prostitution has contradictory aspects.
Which aspect is more significant? Since both present powerful emotional images – of women as manipulated, abused victims and women as trying to get by in the face of society’s contemptuous fear of their sexuality – the one that a person takes as more significant is likely to be heavily but subtley influenced by the strength of their emotional response to those pictures.
Can we emerge from the confusing realm of competing valid emotions by carefully phrasing and answering questions in philosophic style? Not easily.
For instance, one way of framing the issue is to ask “is prostitution significantly different from other forms of work?” That sounds like a good question until you start thinking about the standard for comparison.
A lot of work is so unpleasant that you’d only do it if you really needed the money; a lot of work involves cutting off your feelings for 8 hours and ignoring the demeaning or alienating behaviour of everyone around you; a lot of work involves getting bossed about by an exploitative parasite who imposes petty, insulting rules and takes most of the money you produce. And a lot of the kind of work that gets taken by illegal immigrants is all of those things.
Another framing device is to ask ‘is prostitution a form a rape or sexual violence?’, based on the idea that having sex with someone you don’t want to have sex with, even if you outwardly consent, is still a violation and a more subtle form of emotional abuse.
But then if that standard condemsn prostituion, it also condemns a great deal of everyday sexual life, whenever people have sex because of being pressured into it – including, potentially, cases where both partners would rather not but do it anyway because of messed up communication (which in Heideggerian terms amounts to being raped by ‘the They’).
So the questions are relatively precise when you make big assumptions that everyday work and everyday sex are just fine and ok. Which are very very questionable assumptions. But when the assumptions are dropped, the questions become unhelpfully broad: should we tolerate people being economically coerced into shitty jobs, or emotionally coerced into shitty sex? And if not, what on earth do we do about it?