The world’s oldest profession had its legality upheld recently by the Canadian Supreme Court. On December 20, 2013, the high Court struck down laws banning brothels, making a living from prostitution, and soliciting clients on the street as none were compatible with the 1982 Charter of Rights. Clad in formal gowns fitting for Old Saint Nicholas, the justices gave the country an early Christmas gift by upholding the rights of all “sex workers,” the popular nomenclature preferred by men and women who sell themselves for a bit of dough.
Even as a socially conservative person, I see this ruling as being for the best. I don’t personally agree with the practice of selling intimacy, but justice and basic property rights outweigh my own disposition. Bans on prostitution are no better than declaring the state owns individuals in a very real sense. If a person doesn’t own their body – and selling property is a key component of ownership – they lack the requisite means to be a human being. Prohibition on the sex trade is not slavery, but it comes very close.
Issues like prostitution are often met with a myriad of responses. Conservatives in Canada – if you can believe they exist – are up-in-arms over the Court’s recent ruling because they see sex work as a blight on society. Presumably, liberals are upset that no holiday has been set apart to celebrate the sanctity of selling felacio. On social issues, everyone fights their own little culture war inside their head. Their vision of a prosperous society doesn’t always fit comfortably with those of family, friends, and neighbors. The debate rages on, but the focus often becomes fuzzy when it comes to maintaining rights. Most people want the freedom to speak their opinion on any given matter. They want to live their life free of paying for things they don’t want. But they are also willing to sacrifice the rights of others to live in their version of a pristine society.
In the ruling, the Canadian Supreme Court did not really affirm the right to prostitution (the act of exchanging sexual gratification for money has never been illegal in Canada), but rather the ability to make a legit business out of the practice. Prior to, the sex vocation was, as Charles Lane describes it, “permitted but contained.”
Like any prohibition, the result was prostitution being relegated to the underground economy. The mind reels to think of the squalid conditions to which criminalized sex workers were subject to under previous laws. Think of the Martin Scorsese-directed masterpiece flick Taxi Driver where underage prostitute Iris squeaks out a living in a dirty apartment. Her pimp is violent, and her safety is constantly in question. This is the kind of lifestyle that arises when voluntary transactions are banned by government. Of course, legalized prostitution isn’t exactly glamorous either, but at least the possibility for legal retribution for crime exists.
So props to the Canadian Supreme Court for slightly reaffirming the right to whoring, right? Not so fast.
Technically, the laws banning the various practices of profiting from prostitution are still in effect. Ottawa has until next year to establish regulations for the sex industry. The Court backed away from striking the statutes completely, despite recognizing that the current legal structure is a violation of rights. But if it’s the job of the Supreme Court of Canada to maintain justice, shouldn’t the current bans on burlesque houses be made null and void immediately?
The Court’s ruling is a double-edged sword: it upholds the right of self-ownership while still enshrining the state as the sole determiner of societal function. Parliament has been given a year to determine how the government will lord over the new sector of the economy. No doubt taxes will be levied, brothel inspectors will be badged, and a new bureaucracy will be created to regulate the industry. Sunlight will be cast upon the prostitution business, and grubby-handed tax collectors will use the guiding light to discover a new type of prey.
The task at hand becomes how the Harper administration will go about implementing new dictates for prostitution. Will annual check-ups for call girls be required? Will brothels need to meet politically-correct quotas based on race and gender? Will someone totally unfamiliar with the sex industry be appointed Minister of Harlotry? Or perhaps Harper and Co. will attempt to regulate the industry back into the dark to appease conservative voters.
The great, new frontier of government fostering an industry is bound to hit pitfalls. Unlike the marketplace, there will be a cadre of worry-warts trying to fine tune the arrangement. These well-minded regulators will attempt to balance health, profitability, public mood, and their own positions of power. Time and time again, they will fail. But that won’t diminish their desire to keep a leash on a new potential stream of income.
In a perfect world, prostitution would be left to the free market to sort out. The marketplace is the only social system capable of rationally allocating goods. Should the sex business be left to entrepreneurs, all kinds of methods could develop to ensure every low-down John could satisfy his longing. Sex workers would be in a better position to protect themselves and their property as they would no longer have to hide their occupation.
Similar to the drug trade, the lifting of prohibition on prostitution will decrease the amount of real crime that attaches itself to underground economies. In Portugal, where drug use was totally decriminalized in 2001, narcotic addiction and organized violence around the trade has dropped significantly. That isn’t to say that full legalization of sex working will be as peaceful as shopping in a grocery store. Germany became notorious for child sex trafficking following the end of its prohibition on prostitution. This malfeasance is driven by the pervasiveness of poverty among groups of immigrants as well as girls seeking a more glamorous life outside their home countries. As Rachel Lloyd writes in the New York Times, “criminalizing women and girls in commercial sex…is not the solution, but neither is legalization.” The dismaying trend can only be reversed by policies which foster wealth creation and the teaching of responsible behavior.
It’s doubtful that lifting bans on the commercialization of prostitution will turn Canada into the world’s next hub for sex trafficking. Isolated cases of abuse will pop up on the media’s radar, but not before receding into the memory bin thanks to an off-hand, glib comment by some pol. Such is the attention-span of the modern fourth estate. The important part is, unjust laws denying the right of self-ownership have been struck down. It’s up to the individual conscience to sort out whether the selling of intimacy is right or wrong. I believe it to be immoral, but then again I am not starving on the street, desperate for money.