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Decriminalizing prostitution, a magnet for pimps and johns

10 septembre 2005

par Melissa Farley

Source : Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws, 30 March 2005.

Thank you for inviting me here. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you about some of the things I’ve learned about prostitution after a decade of research.

I dedicate my remarks today to a young aboriginal woman in a Vancouver park who said to Jacqueline Lynn and me, "We don’t talk much."

It’s my understanding that the goal of the subcommittee is to avoid violence against women. Unfortunately, once we understand what prostitution is, it becomes apparent that there’s no way that prostitution can be transformed into a job that’s safe for women.

Prostitution is a gendered survival strategy that involves the assumption of unreasonable risks. The very definition of the job is sexual harassment. It’s simply not possible to protect someone whose source of income exposes them to the likelihood of being raped, on average, once a week.

I want to quote a survivor who said the following :

    I cannot avoid expressing my deepest grief in learning of the efforts of pro-prostitution organizations to decriminalize the act of purchasing a person for sex. It is simply not possible for me to convey in words the intense pain and struggle I have endured as a result of my experience in prostitution.

    I chose to work as a prostitute because I believed I had no other options. I entered prostitution due to extreme emotional and financial stress and a lack of a supportive family system.

    I was able to work in "upscale" massage parlours.... [I]t is completely erroneous to assume that the brothels were immune to violence. There were incidents of attempted strangulation and forceful restraint. Customers would intentionally remove condoms against the prostitute’s wishes....

    I now choose to be an advocate for the right of prostitutes to be free of the forces that restrict their escape. I...urge all compassionate people to consult the data and research that has been conducted regarding the...desires of the women, men, children, and transgendered who are in prostitution.

This illustrates that those involved in the advocacy of prostitution as a job represent a very, very small minority.

I think people are genuinely confused about how to address what they instinctively understand to be the harms of prostitution. People have asked me, wouldn’t it be a little bit better if it was decriminalized ? Wouldn’t there be less stigma, and wouldn’t prostitutes somehow be protected ? The answer is no.

Decriminalization does not decrease the stigma of prostitution and increase women in prostitution’s safety

When people talk about the harms of prostitution, they’re usually referring exclusively to physical harm—HIV risk, rape risk, physical assault risk, and murder risk, all of which are exceptionally high among those in prostitution.

My research has included people who willingly assume the role of a prostitute, only to discover later that it’s far more dangerous and far more profoundly damaging than they initially suspected. Prostitution is an institution where one person has the social and economic power to transform another person into the living embodiment of a masturbation fantasy. In prostitution, the conditions that make genuine consent possible are absent : physical safety, equal power with customers, and real alternatives. It’s not a choice the way we ordinarily think of a choice as being made from a range of options.

One woman in Amsterdam referred to prostitution as "volunteer slavery", an expression that I think accurately represents both the appearance of choice and the coercion behind that choice.

An act of deshumanization

Researchers and public health experts don’t usually talk about the psychological harms of prostitution. The psychological harms of prostitution happen because, like rape and incest, prostitution is an act of sexually invasive dehumanization, as Michelle Anderson put it.

Public awareness about the traumatic harms of prostitution and sex trafficking lag many years behind public awareness of the harms of incest, rape, and battering, yet the harms are essentially the same. The difference is that prostitution, unlike rape, incest, and battering, offers financial reward for perpetrators. As we all know, there’s massive money in this business. And for her, the payment of money makes sexual exploitation invisible, and taking pictures of her in prostitution turns her humiliation into sexual entertainment for someone else.

It took me many years of listening to women in prostitution to understand that the most severe damage of prostitution is not physical, it’s psychological. The rates of post-traumatic stress disorder-PTSD or combat trauma-are among the highest of any group of people ever studied. We interviewed more than 850 people in prostitution in nine countries, including Canada, and found that PTSD among women in prostitution is comparable to that of battered women, rape survivors, and war combat veterans. Women in prostitution suffer extremely high rates of depression, substance abuse, dissociation, head injury, and suicide attempts.

Family abuse and running away from home

We interviewed gay men and transgendered people in Canada and in other countries and found that the same reasons that channel women into prostitution also channel gay and transgendered youth into prostitution-family neglect, family abuse, running away from home-and that once in prostitution, gay youth and transgendered youth are treated just the way girls and women are.

Does it make a difference whether prostitution happens indoors or outdoors ? Well, we have some indication that there is slightly less physical violence indoors, but this is relative. The fact that some types of prostitution are associated with more severe harm than others does not mean that the marginally less harmful types of prostitution are not harmful at all. This is a logical fallacy that some people make.

The myth of indoor prostitution

In one study that was recently done in San Francisco, 62% of Asian women in San Francisco massage parlours had been physically assaulted by johns. This data was only from half of the massage parlours in San Francisco. The other half, those massage parlours that were controlled by pimps and traffickers who refused access to the researchers were, I would guess, probably much more violent to the women inside. But even in the ones that admitted people in, there was a 62% rate of physical assault in indoor prostitution.

Dutch researchers-as you know, prostitution is legal in the Netherlands-found that two factors are associated with greater violence in prostitution : the greater the poverty, the greater the violence ; and the longer one is in prostitution, the more likely one is to experience violence.

Women don’t just prostitute in one location. They all have cell phones. Cell phones mean you can work on the street, you can go to an escort agency.... A cell phone means you can do a range of types of prostitution, and today that’s how it works. They move to different locations, both indoors and outdoors. There’s not some absolute separation between indoors and outdoors in prostitution.

According to many studies, the rates of psychological violence in indoor and outdoor prostitution are comparable.

In practice, what indoor prostitution does is increase the john’s safety and comfort, but it does nothing to decrease psychological trauma for the prostituted woman. In fact the social invisibility of indoor prostitution may actually increase its danger.

Acknowledging the lethal damages of indoor prostitution, a Dutch pimp said, "You can ’t have a pillow in a brothel ; it’s a murder weapon." By the time women in indoor prostitution hit a panic button and the door is broken down by a bouncer, they’ve already been badly injured, according to bouncers in Australia, where prostitution is decriminalized. The panic buttons can never be answered fast enough to prevent violence. Panic buttons in brothels make as little sense as panic buttons in the homes of battered women.

Edifying recommendations

For another non sequitur, imagine this. This is not a joke. The Australian occupational safety guidelines for women in prostitution recommend that women entering prostitution take classes in hostage negotiation skills. This is what you have to learn if you’re going to enter the job of prostitution in a decriminalized context.

A South African organization recommended that while undressing, the prostitute should accidentally kick a shoe under the bed, and while retrieving it should check for knives, handcuffs, and rope. This is an everyday part of the job of prostitution.

In San Francisco we have de facto decriminalized indoor prostitution and massage brothels. Recently a prostitutes’ rights group recommended that women should always know where the exits are, that they wear shoes they can run in, and that they should never wear necklaces, scarves, or anything that can be tightened against the throat.

Prostitution is an institution that systematically discriminates against women, against the young, against the poor, and against ethnically subordinated groups. In Canada, my research with Jackie Lynn and Ann Cotton included many first nations girls and women who did not have a range of alternatives to prostitution for economic survival. Those promoting decriminalized prostitution rarely if ever address poverty, race, and ethnicity as factors that make women even more vulnerable to entrance into prostitution and danger once in it.

Why are first nations women overrepresented in prostitution in Canada ? This is a burning question that must be answered.

I wanted to give you some preliminary findings on my research with customers, but I won’t be able to get to that unless someone asks me questions about it.


Let me just conclude by talking about what we know happens when prostitution is decriminalized, because there’s a great deal of evidence in parts of the world where it has been decriminalized.

Decriminalized prostitution is a magnet for pimps and johns. Decriminalized prostitution offers these people a legal welcome, and they will take you up on the offer. What happens is both legal and illegal prostitution are dramatically increased when prostitution is decriminalized. It becomes just another purchase of a commodity, like toothpaste or popcorn.

Trafficking of women into Canada will increase. Good business strategy on the part of pimps means they can move women and children to countries where there are no legal barriers to the operation of sex businesses.

Organized crime increases. New Zealand has been mentioned by a couple of people this morning. We’re seeing a massive increase in organized crime in just the little over a year and a half since prostitution has been decriminalized in New Zealand. That should be looked at very carefully.

Finally, the prostitution of children increases wherever you have decriminalized prostitution.

A coffee and a chat and a condom are not what women in prostitution need, or a union. Of the women we interviewed in Canada, 95% said they wanted to escape prostitution, and they even told us what they needed. They need stable housing. They want to escape prostitution. They didn’t say they wanted to escape illegal or outdoor prostitution ; they said they wanted to escape all prostitution. And they said they wanted drug and alcohol addiction treatment, and they wanted job training, and counselling.

 Source : Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws, 30 March 2005.

To read Melissa Farley’s articles : prostitution research website.

On Sisyphe, September 16th, 2005.

Melissa Farley

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