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The Need for a Public Debate on Prostitution and its Social Consequences

1er mars 2005

par Elaine Audet

Since the 1970s, there has been a movement in Canada, in Europe and in the United States in favour of recognizing the concept of "sex worker" for those who offer sexual services in the same way as other social services workers are recognized. According to that logic, women in prostitution are no different from other exploited individuals, crushed by globalization and the selling of everything living. There would then be no reason for them not to enjoy the same rights as all workers.

In Quebec, the members of the organization known as Stella have emerged as the spokespersons for this trend toward the liberalization of prostitution. They refuse to view prostituted women as victims, assert that most of them have freely chosen to become "sex workers" and view their activity as a source of empowerment. However, we are justified in questioning such assertions when an international study has shown that 92% of women in prostitution would leave their trade if they could only do so. (1) The courage displayed by prostituted women cannot be doubted because there is not one piece of testimony that does not say, as Jeanne Cordelier does in her memoirs of her life in prostitution : "When the door to the room closes, there is no escape. It’s a one-way street with no emergency exit". (2)

All the words used in this debate are heavily weighted, especially such concepts as rights, free choice, sex worker. Concerning the last-mentioned concept, the French former prostitute Agnès Laury believes that a better definition would be "commodities sold by men to men".(3) The existence of prostitution trivializes the sexual slavery of women and strengthens the view of them as mere objects of barter that must be accessible and available for all men at any time and everywhere. Patriarchal culture is based on the principle that the sole duty and power of women lies in the art of satisfying men sexually in marriage or prostitution.

The Quebec anthropologist Rose Dufour has just published a book on her interviews with 21 prostituted women and their clients,(4) in which she states that "seventeen of these women were abused as children and some were forced into prostitution." She refused to regard prostitution as a trade. "Prostitution alienates human beings. These women have lost everything, even their dignity." As for the clients, she says that "they are ordinary people, husbands, fathers from all social classes and of all ages. Not sexual perverts or victims. The fact that they prostitute women is above all the result of a society in which the relations between men and women are sick".(5)

We live in a universe of consumption, where precedence is given to individualism, frenzied consumption of beings and things, the nec plus ultra being that we consume one another. In this context, the concept of "sex worker" serves to counter feminist opposition to the marketing of women on a global scale. And the clients are only too happy to believe that women become prostitutes by choice or because they like it and not out of need, as is shown by all the investigations.

The interests at stake

The current movement to liberalize prostitution has its roots in the general liberalization of the economy and objectively serves its interests. We also hear increasingly at the United Nations or in the media pronouncements in which the sex trade is presented as an alternative to economic problems if not an avenue for development. In 1998, the International Labour Organization (ILO) promoted a report in favour of legalizing prostitution, noting that "the possibility of official recognition would be extremely useful in expanding the tax net and thus covering many lucrative activities that are related". (6) It is clearly admitted therefore that prostitution has acquired the dimensions of an industry and contributes directly or indirectly to employment, government revenues and the economic growth of countries !

On the international level, the revenues of prostitution are of the order of US $72 billion per year and now exceed those derived from the arms trade and drug trafficking, and this includes millions of dollars in Canada, where a pimp makes an average of about $144,000 per year from each prostitute. (7) In Montreal along, between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals live on the avails of prostitution. It is clear that organized crime and pimps have an interest in expanding such a profitable market. Since they enjoy the complicity of all levels of society, they have the financial, political and media resources to advocate the position of a minority claiming to speak on behalf of all prostituted women.

Studies of the situation in those countries that have liberalized prostitution show that decriminalization does not benefit women in prostitution or women as a whole. It benefits primarily the pimps, dealers, organized crime generally, clients for whom it is not important that the sex act is mechanical, completely lacking in reciprocal feeling and responsibility and the essential point is that everyone, regardless of social status, can purchase power over a woman as he wishes.

The body as commodity

It is, of course, impossible to talk of women in prostitution as a whole, because the situation of the individuals differs substantially, depending on whether they are escorts or nude dancers, work on the streets or in massage parlours, are independent or have to give a substantial share of their earnings to a pimp. What they all share, however, is the fact that they are recruited on average at about the age of 14, made vulnerable by the violence in their surroundings, poverty, unemployment and drugs. Most of them are forced into the trade by pimps and street gangs whose goal is to depersonalize them until they are no longer capable of acting or even thinking for themselves. Many pass through reception centres and prisons and more than one-half of them are drug addicts. How in the circumstances can anyone speak of a choice freely made to become a prostitute ?

Prostitution is one of the most violent forms of collective oppression of women and, with very few exceptions, it is always under the coercive control of pimps.(8) Consequently, is it possible to argue that there is a human right to dispose of one’s own body under conditions that so explicitly contravene respect for an individual’s dignity and integrity, which is recognized by the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, adopted by the United Nations on December 2, 1949 ?

The numerous testimonies of prostituted women who have broken the law of silence shows that they are constantly subjected to humiliations of all kinds, theft, physical and sexual assault, not to mention the game of Russian roulette when they are required to have unprotected sex. "I was afraid, aware that the situation could get out of hand at any time", said Mylène, a Quebec prostitute.(9) It is certain that not all men are violent but, essentially, what they purchase is the power to be violent with impunity. "Battered women who do not complain have accepted the message conveyed by society : prostitution is a package deal ; you have to accept even the unacceptable."(10) How much longer will we systematically confuse the right of men with the Rights of Man ?

The debate about prostitution now under way is increasingly being turned on the feminists, who, according to some people, are responsible for the victimization and stigmatization of women in prostitution. It is as though the feminists had created the pejorative expressions that have always been used by men to refer to women in prostitution and that stigmatize them with men’s contempt. However, they are not responsible for the conditions under which women in prostitution work or for the hostility of people who see their residential areas converted into open markets for women and drugs. Because we have not succeeded in eliminating the causes of a problem, must we then legitimize its consequences ? Little or nothing is said about those truly responsible for the assaults and murders of prostituted women, pimps, street gangs, those involved in organized crime and the johns who feel that paying gives them every right over prostituted women, including the right to beat and abase them if their momentary fantasy or misogyny so wishes.

Against prostitution and not against prostituted women

Have we ever heard it said that those who denounced slavery were against Blacks ? However, an attempt is made to suggest that feminists are moralists and despise prostituted women when they denounce the whole pimping system, the lack of conscience and violence of clients and the worldwide commercialization of women as a result of neoliberalism. It hardly needs to be repeated that in Quebec there is a consensus among feminists that all levels of government should stop treating prostituted women as criminals and provide them with access to the health, social, legal and police services they are demanding.

Where there is genuine debate, what is advocated is criminalization of the clients, since pimps are already subject, albeit in a very lax way, to Canadian law. For most feminists, defending the rights of women in prostitution does not in any way indicate support for the total liberalization of the "sex trade". There is no overlap, as some would argue, between an individual’s right to prostitute herself and the rights of lesbians or the right to divorce and abortion. These rights concern the reappropriation by women of their own bodies whereas the prostitution system dispossesses women and in fact makes their bodies a commodity available to all men.

Participating in one’s own oppression ?

We might ask who and how many people truly represent the organizations that promote prostitution as a new "lifestyle", a new state of sexuality in which women can freely assert themselves and grow ? How can they be more credible than the great majority of prostitutes who, according to many investigations, say that they want to leave that life ? History shows that there have always been oppressed people who adopt the dominant viewpoint in order to escape the destiny of their fellows and to obtain immediate personal benefits. The interests at play are substantial and it can easily be assumed that all means will be used to ensure that a law is passed to legitimize "work in the sex trade" and the commodification of women. Must we enact legislation that commits the whole of society to the demands of a minority who present prostitution as a freely made choice ?

If prostitution is legalized, the state will collect more taxes and make savings in unemployment and welfare benefits by claiming that there is always work available in the sex trade. People generally become hot under the collar when it is stated that, if prostitution were legalized, unemployed women could not refuse jobs they are offered as "sex workers". An article in the London Daily Telegraph on January 30, 2005 (11) tells the story of a 25-year-old waitress who was threatened with cuts in her unemployment insurance benefits if she refused the offer by a job centre of "work" in a Berlin brothel. Under labour force reforms in Germany, will any woman under 55 years of age who has been unemployed for more than one year, be forced to accept available work, including work in the "sex trade", which has been legalized for two years now ?

Will an employer seeking a "sex worker" be treated in the same way as an employer seeking a dental assistant ? There is no longer any provision in German law to prevent job centres from steering women into the "sex trade". Pimps seeking workers may also post advertisements at job centres and they may be prosecuted if they do not post them. A brothel owner said that she was entitled to recruit her staff in this way, like any other business-owner, since she paid taxes like everyone else.

The basis for the pro-liberalization position is the conviction that the sexual behaviour of men will not change, that it must be accepted and that we need to derive as many benefits as possible from it. This echoes the pronouncements of the high priests of neoliberal globalization, who try to convince us that there are no alternatives and that everyone will benefit after the necessary "rationalizations" and "restructurings". We have seen that the results of this are increased unemployment, the feminization of poverty and increased violence against women and the impoverishment of the poorer countries, where sexual enslavement of women and children is increasing.

Finally, the only people attacked are the feminists who do not believe that the complete decriminalization of prostitution would deliver all the benefits predicted by the associations of "sex-trade workers" and that it would resolve all problems relating to public health, the safety of prostituted women, control of organized crime, international trafficking as well as the risks linked to street and brothel prostitution. One only has to read the many studies of the situation in countries that have legalized prostitution such as the Netherlands and Australia. In the view of researcher Sheila Jeffreys,(12) who analysed the Australian experience, the legislation was a step backwards. Some of her conclusions are presented below.

Liberalization of prostitution does not solve anything

Instead of narrowing the gulf between the public and women in prostitution, legalization merely makes it wider because, even though they might object, local authorities will not have the right to deny a brothel permit as long as the brothel meets certain requirements. Democracy is trampled by a system of prostitution that has the approval of the state. Nor are public health problems solved merely because prostitutes are "subjected" to a periodic examination for venereal disease but not their clients. It is therefore the health of these women that is once again placed at risk since as many as 40% of clients refuse to wear a condom.

It is thought that the liberalization of prostitution will limit the involvement of organized crime by forcing all those involved to act in the open and within the law. In those jurisdictions where prostitution is legal, Jeffreys notes that an illegal sector continues to exist that is much better developed than the legal sector. The number of illegal brothels is sometimes estimated to be four times greater then the number of licensed premises. Nor does decriminalization put an end to the widespread corruption in the police services, judiciary, court system, the law and the political system. The police apparently do not hesitate to administer lethal overdoses of drugs to prostituted women who could compromise them.

The facts also show that decriminalization does not provide safety for women in prostitution, or a reduction in "everyday" violence perpetrated by clients, rapes, assaults or the murders to which prostituted women are constantly exposed. In some brothels, there is an alarm button but intervention occurs only after the assault has taken place. Once the door to the room is closed, it is impossible to protect these women. Those who specialize in S&M practices are usually hired to be "submissive" and their bodies may be slashed, pierced or marked with hot iron. Penetration of the vagina or anus with a fist may tear the colon and result in death. It is also observed that legalization has led to a substantial increase in anal penetration. Such violence is completely legal, according to Jeffreys, and women have no remedy because that is what they are paid to do. In addition, prostitutes may be fined by their employers if they refuse to go with a client they consider dangerous.

Expansion of street prostitution and trafficking

Street prostitution in Australia continues despite the existence of legal brothels, where women might have assumed that they would be safer, even though that is not the case. Violence, drug addiction and problems with residents only grow worse. Most of the prostituted women are itinerant and take drugs. It can be said without exaggeration that since legalization, some areas of cities are now devoted completely to the exercise of male violence.

Once again, contrary to what those who advocate the complete decriminalization of prostitution might say, the result is increased trafficking in women, the number of whom required to staff legal and illegal brothels is constantly increasing. Sex-trade entrepreneurs (former pimps) prefer women supplied by traffickers because they are more vulnerable and thus more profitable. Traffickers sell these women to brothels for $15,000 each. To repay that amount, the women need to have sex with approximately 800 men.

While it does not reduce violence against women in prostitution, decriminalization of the "sex trade" gives rise throughout society to a culture of prostitution. The behaviour of men with respect to prostitution is normalized and becomes a common and routine part of the culture. It is not hard to see that this normalization of prostitution has deleterious effects on the status and living conditions of all women, who are viewed more or less as a potential for prostitution.

How can it be assumed that such a decision would improve the lives of women in prostitution ? As the Iranian author Chahdortt Djavann has said on the subject of the individual liberty relied on to justify wearing the hijab : ["If young Jews today decided to wear the yellow star, claiming that they were free to do so ; if young Blacks decided to wear chains on their necks and feet, saying ’I am free to do so’, would society not react ?" What are we to do when some women say that they find freedom in selling their bodies and want society to legitimize their individual experience as an experience that is acceptable to society as a whole ?

The abolition of prostitution is a long-term project that presupposes the questioning of the social, sexual and economic relationships of domination and immediate action needs to be taken to combat poverty and violence against women, to give women in prostitution the assistance and protection they need to put in place means of resisting pimps and dealers (who are often the same people) as well as deterring and raising awareness among clients.

Essential role played by clients

In my recent afterword to La Mondialisation des industries du sexe - Prostitution, pornographie, traite des femmes et des enfants by Richard Poulin, (13) I attempted to provide some feminist perspectives on prostitution by focusing specifically on the client, who is seen by feminist researchers as the keystone in the edifice of prostitution and to show that a world without prostitution is possible, just as the abolition of slavery and apartheid were possible. I noted that there are very few studies about the clients of prostituted women. Those that exist make up only about 1% of all studies on the subject. This is the first time that men, although they are at the core of the problem, have received so little attention, which shows in fact the extent of their solidarity in concealing the unedifying role they play as pimps or clients.

Since 1980, it is the countries of northern Europe that have produced most of the research on this subject. Sociologist Sven-Axel Mansson of the University of Göteborg in Sweden conducted a study for Unesco in 1984 to which reference is still made. Its title was "Man in the Sex Trade". Mansson shows that the largest group of clients, 40% to be precise, consists of men between 30 and 39 years of age, of whom 47% are living with a woman.

For Mansson, the clients of prostituted women may be grouped into 70% occasional (single or rare incident) and 30% habitual clients (more than twenty contacts). The occasionals, who purchase sex on a few occasions during their lives, are more receptive to legal measures. Most of the time, fear of prosecution has an impact on them. The habitual purchasers of sexual services are men who, during periods of varying duration in their lives, regularly visit women in prostitution. They are not very numerous but regularly prostitute a large number of women.

These clients tend to project their emotional problems onto women by using violence in varying degrees to humiliate and degrade them. This group is probably not very receptive to legal measures, which means that fines or prison terms will not prevent them from purchasing sex again. Mansson concludes that working with these men and treating their problems is certainly a major challenge in social work.

There are also clients, primarily young people, whose idea of social sex relationships and sexuality is modeled on the images produced in large quantities in pornography, advertising and televised entertainment programs. For these men, anything is possible. They have an essentially mercantile view of sexuality, where sex is comparable to a consumer product rather than an intimate relationship. Sex is viewed above all as an irresistible physical need. Such a perception dates back to the archaic patriarchal ideology that claims that heterosexual prostitution is an inevitable natural phenomenon.

According to Sven Axel Mansson, clients’ motivations have more to do with male/female relationships than with their sexuality. In his view, it involves much more a quest for sexual power than the satisfaction of a sexual urge. Today, many women no longer accept being sexually dominated by men. Those who are not able to accept these changes in their relationships with women find in prostitution a world where "the old order is still in force". Often, Mansson says, ["the compulsive need to consort with women in prostitution can be examined in light of this relative loss of power". Many pay to play a passive role and not to have to take the wishes of their partner into account.

In passing, this researcher demolishes a number of myths, including one that claims that prostitution can save couples, because the figures show on the contrary that there are more divorces and breakdowns of common-law relationships when men resort to women in prostitution. The same is true of the myth that prostitution is a solution for single men whereas, in fact, there are more men who pay to have sexual relations among those who have numerous sexual partners. Moreover, with regard to the widespread myth that men by nature have irrepressible sexual desires, the social sciences have shown that sexuality, like gender differences, is a social construct.

Prostitution as a power to dominate women

It was thought that the sexual revolution would lead to a decline in prostitution. However, Mansson notes that it appears that one of the secondary effects of the sexual revolution has been a strengthening of the feeling in men that they are entitled to unlimited access to sex. Sex has become similar to a consumer product rather than an aspect of personal relations. Prostitution cannot be examined unless we constantly bear in mind the feeling of domination that the act of paying gives clients, their choice of relations in which they are not responsible for the consequences and where there is no emotional involvement and their wish, through the whole history of patriarchy and private property, to justify and perpetuate commercial sex relations, in which they remain the absolute masters of the situation.

Many researchers have pointed out that it is quite inconsistent to prohibit a pimp from organizing the sale of women and children when a prostitute’s client is recognized as having the right to purchase them like any other commodity without fear of punishment. Rather than penalizing the client, an attempt is made to attract new ones, especially women, to stimulate demand through an increased provision of "new arrivals" from all parts of the world, targeting all social classes.

If nothing is done against those who purchase or rent the bodies of women, it is because they are implicitly recognized as having this right while we pretend to ignore the fact that violence is always inherent in prostitution. Clients pay to legally violate the intimacy of women and children. Prostitution cannot be separated from other forms of male violence perpetrated against women. It destroys the people who engage in it and the client’s responsibility, which is an integral part of this destruction, cannot continue to be concealed without unacceptable hypocrisy and dishonesty.

Prostitution has the same consequences as rape on the mental and physical health of the people involved in it. Not all women are forced into prostitution by misery ; a situation is required that predisposes them to contemplate such a solution. It is possible to observe in most of them the existence of traumas experienced in childhood such as incest, rape or physical abuse and these phenomena create in those women who have thus been broken an unconscious desire for self-destruction that finds an outlet in prostitution.

Some researchers speak of a schizoid experience of prostitution. They stress the fact that it is not a question, as in many professions where the body is at issue, of a motive force external to those who engage in it but of the "integrity of what lies within", the "identity of a total sexual being". One does not have one’s body, one is one’s body. "My body is me". Not an object or an instrument separate from the being that can be sold, leased, abandoned or kept for oneself, but the being itself. We do not belong to ourselves ; we are. This is why the freedom of the owner, which the promoters of prostitution claim over their bodies as objects, is part of the most destructive alienation.

How can we continue to act as though we were not aware that most prostituted women have been assaulted physically in their work in prostitution, either by pimps or by clients (beatings, rapes, attempted murder and confinement) ? Whereas society finally decided to impose punishments for rape, recognizing that no sexual need can justify attacks on and destruction of a person, what can we expect as the punishment for the form of paid rape that is prostitution ?

The fact that a prostitute takes the client’s money creates the illusion that she consents and thus makes it impossible to identify prostitution as violence and to punish the client. Some prostituted women say that prostitution is "a rape purchased and sold". Only recognition of prostitution as a form of violence will enable us to punish the client, and conversely the criminalization of the client will show that prostitution is viewed as an unacceptable form of violence against women.

For most researchers, merely making clients liable is not sufficient. Would anyone dare to propose a "policy of making rapists accountable" that did not include penalizing them by countering the fact that society refuses to view prostituted women as victims. In this society created by men for men, it is as though sexual violence were normal whenever payment is made to exercise it. Whereas all the facts and the testimony of women in prostitution show that they are the victims of violence, groups advocating the complete decriminalization of prostitution use the term "victim" as an insult against women in prostitution and an attempt by feminists to deny their freedom and the power they would find in prostituting themselves. They thus make it possible to perpetuate the illusion that prostituted women consent to what happens and thus absolve the clients of all responsibility.

Despite a desire for change among many young parents, boys are still generally socialized as though women dreamed of nothing other than to satisfy their needs and their desires. From this perspective, a pimp is merely an intermediary in achieving this natural appropriation of women of whom they prefer to think that they deserve what happens to them or that they really like it. If it punished the clients, the State would show that it did not approve of sexual relations indicating domination, the resultofwhichistomakeviolenceappearthenorm and to dehumanize people in pornography and prostitution.

Statements of survivors

In all countries, groups of former women in prostitution, survivors, are struggling to bring an end to this form of slavery by targeting clients and pimps, without whom there would no longer be prostitution. In San Francisco, for example, women who were formerly in prostitution have founded the organization Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE). The testimony they have given has vigorously exploded all the myths surrounding prostitution as a choice and a liberation.(14)

Fortunately, other voices are heard that offer a different analysis of the experience of prostitution and speak of the fear associated with the act of breaking the law of silence. How is it possible to confuse sexual submission with the desire of each and every person for sexual liberation or a free expression of sexuality ? At the risk of repeating the same arguments as a form of mantra, attempts are made to convince us that it would be in the interest of the women’s movement to approve of the sexual slavery of women in the sex trade. Against such resignation, we would barely dare to ask what will happen when men no longer need women to procreate or as surrogate mothers when they can procreate alone, when the women thrown into the planetary abacus of prostitution are standardized and offered as everyday consumer objects.

It is high time that the silence concerning the role of purchasers of sexual services was broken as we ask if it is not the discretionary right to and power over sexual cruelty that they are purchasing. This is not puritanism but a fundamental ethical question concerning the commodification of what is human.(15)

Toward a world without prostitution

Groups advocating the decriminalization of prostitution seek to minimize the importance of the Swedish experience without referring to results recently observed in that country. As editors of the Sisyphe Website, Micheline Carrier and I wrote in an article published in Le Devoir on December 16, 2004 (16) that we did not view the Swedish model as a panacea. We advocate not that it be copied as such but that it forms the basis for possible changes in the Canadian legislation. In those countries that have liberalized their prostitution laws, the process has led to a spectacular increase in prostitution and the trafficking of sexual services, as is shown in the studies quoted by Yolande Geadah (2003) (17) and Richard Poulin (2004) (18), and the work of Sheila Jeffreys (2003) on the failure of the Australian legislation. (19)

The Swedish model is not perfect. None can be. It does have the merit, however, of forming part of a body of legislation designed to protect the rights of women, decriminalizing women in prostitution, providing them with a number of services and struggling against prostitution rather than resigning itself to regarding prostitution as a pillar of the global economy. What is unprecedented is the fact that a government has recognized that prostitution is a form of violence against women and has succeeded in making the public aware that such violence is socially unacceptable.

To the best of our knowledge, the most recent research concerning the law on prostitution was published on February 4, 2004 on the Scottish Parliament’s Website. (20) In 2003, Scotland, which was thinking of revising its own prostitution laws, commissioned this research from London Metropolitan University. The research team examined in detail the legislation of Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden, as well as its impact. It seems that the Swedish law, the result of a 20-year process and approved by 70% of parliamentarians (the Conservative and Liberal parties voted against it), produced many more positive than negative results. The law provides substantial budgets for full social services (including financial assistance) for prostituted women. It is true that it appeared to be a failure in the early years of its application, primarily because police and judges did not do their share in applying it. Sweden then invested substantial sums in training workers in the social and legal sectors and to raise public awareness.

In 2002, Sweden adopted, among other things, legislation designed to strengthen those mentioned above. "The 2002 Act Prohibiting Human Trafficking for the Purpose of Sexual Exploitation closed some of the loopholes in the earlier legislation and further strengthened the government’s ability to go after the network of persons that surround and support prostitution, such as the recruiters, the transporters, and the hosts." (Source : Marie De Santis (21) According to a 2004 article by the Women’s Justice Center (in English and French) (22) : "In the capital city of Stockholm the number of women in street prostitution has been reduced by two thirds, and the number of johns has been reduced by 80%. There are other major Swedish cities where street prostitution has all but disappeared. Gone too, for the most part, are the renowned Swedish brothels and massage parlors which proliferated during the last three decades of the twentieth century when prostitution in Sweden was legal. In addition, the number of foreign women now being trafficked into Sweden for sex is nil. The Swedish government estimates that in the last few years only 200 to 400 women and girls have been annually sex trafficked into Sweden, a figure that’s negligible compared to the 15,000 to 17,000 females yearly sex trafficked into neighboring Finland."

It will be said that the Swedish legislation has merely shifted the problem to neighbouring countries. The same could also be said, for example, of the laws on organized crime. Should they now be repealed because participants in that type of crime are moving to more conducive locations ? Finland and Norway plan to follow Sweden’s example and Scotland could eventually do the same thing. The study commissioned by Scotland (2003) confirms what a number of earlier studies suggested, namely that the "sex trade", sexual tourism, child prostitution and violence against prostituted women have substantially increased in all countries that have liberalized their prostitution laws and made pimps respectable businessmen.

We concluded, finally, that legislative reform alone is not sufficient. Sweden has not allowed things to rest at that. It has allocated the resources to explain its legislation to the public, 80% of which supports the government, and has invested substantial sums in services for those who wish to leave prostitution and even in services for clients. Sweden’s efforts have undoubtedly not stopped bearing fruit. In order for such efforts to succeed, however, there must be a desire to combat prostitution.

The struggle against prostitution organizes on the ground

In Quebec, the Regroupement des CALACS was established to increase the effectiveness of individual struggles, reduce the geographic isolation of women and create a force that could bring pressure to bear on governments. Its supporters have taken a firm stand against the complete decriminalization of prostitution in the debates that shook the women’s movement in 2002. In its working paper, (22) CALACS asserts that "by calling these women ’sex workers’, we minimize the violence, the poverty and the oppression that lead women and girls to prostitution and confine them there. We also legitimize the sex trade as a sector of the economy rather than seeing it as a system of exploitation". CALACS feels that "prostitution involves the sexual exploitation of women and cannot in any way be considered legitimate work or an acceptable way to gain economic independence". For these groups, prostitution is a form of violence practiced primarily against women and a violation of fundamental human rights and persons working in this profession should not for any reason be the victims of discrimination in any form.

In France, the struggle for a world without prostitution is based on the itinerant clinics such as those provided by the Mouvement du Nid (23), the starting point for which is the principle that no one has the right to purchase sexual services from another human being, even with that human being’s consent. That movement, which came into being in 1937, consists of a national network of 30 groups in 28 cities in France with approximately 250 active supporters and 3000 sympathizers and publishes the Prostitution et Société magazine. Its goals are to develop among participants an ability to view prostitution as a social phenomenon (and not as a personal problem of the prostitute herself), to prevent all forms of prostitution, to act by making occasional statements, to detect the existence of conduct relating to prostitution and to work on a dynamic of reintegrating the people involved into society.

Three groups in the public are essentially affected by the organization’s actions : the prostituted women, the johns and the pimps ; public opinion and the authorities in order to bring about lasting changes in behaviour with respect to prostitution in all its forms ; members of society with a view to obtaining training for a global approach to prostitution to the extent that those individuals have professional or volunteer responsibility in such areas. What the movement offers is less a service than a path toward liberation. For the movement, a true AIDS-prevention policy requires a true prostitution-prevention policy with a view to causing the phenomenon to disappear.

In her "Consequences of the Sex Industry in the European Union", filed in April 2004, a Member of the European Parliament, Marianne Eriksson, calls on the member countries to block the route to a sex industry. "Measures of various kinds have been adopted and begun to be implemented to alert and protect women but forceful measures to combat demand have still hardly seen the light of day".(24) She is convinced that positive change will occur only if such action is taken.

Eriksson utters a cry of alarm when she draws attention to the fact that in recent years, several member states of the EU have thrown in the towel and, rather than combating this form of exploitation of human beings, have legalized or regulated prostitution, thus contributing to the inclusion in the legal economic circuit of an activity that was previously regarded as criminal. "In doing so", Eriksson says, "the member states are becoming a component in the sex trade and, furthermore, are profiting from it". Earlier, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) had called for "penalties for the clients of prostitution and strengthening of policies against pimping".


In the short term, it needs to be ensured that women in prostitution have access to the health, social, legal and police services they request as well as to emergency and short-term shelters, that those who perpetrate violence against them be subject to criminal prosecution, that the police are there to protect them and not to harass and fine them. It is not a question of combating prostituted women but prostitution. We already have a system of universal social protection, under which everyone may access free health services, receive welfare benefits and an old age pension that are not linked to employment, but only the provision of a decent minimum income for everyone could ensure that no one is forced to prostitute herself in order to survive.

In 2001, it was estimated that there were 40 million prostitued women in the world, of whom 75% were between the ages of 13 and 25. Each year, worldwide human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution creates some four million or so new victims among women and children. We want Canada to follow the Swedish model, in keeping with Canada’s values of equality and respect for human rights, since that model has succeeded in slowing down the expansion of prostitution, but does not criminalize the women in prostitution themselves.

No substantial research has been conducted in Canada into prostitution and pornography since the Fraser Report of 1985 and the situation has changed greatly in the intervening 20 years. In an appeal to all Canadian parliamentarians (in English and in French) signed by some thirty well-known personalities, (25) Micheline Carrier and I asked the government of Canada to undertake a serious study assessing all the challenges of decriminalizing prostitution, including the risk of increased sexual traffic and tourism in the country, before it embarked on any reform of the Criminal Code with respect to pimping, prostitution and soliciting. Since policies on prostitution have a structuring effect on the whole of society and thus on our collective future, we also asked the government to carry out extensive public consultations on the subject.

* Memoire sent, at its demand, to the Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws of the Standing Committee on Justice, Human Rights, Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in Ottawa, on February 10th 2005. Translation by the subcomitee’s services, revised by the author.


1. Conseil du statut de la femme, La prostitution : profession ou exploitation ? Une réflexion à poursuivre, juin 2002. Ce document est disponible intégralement ou en version synthèse.
2 Jeanne Cordelier, La dérobade, Paris, Hachette, 1976.
3 Agnès Laury, Le cri du corps, Paris, Pauvert, 1981.
4. Rose Dufour, Je vous salue..., Québec, Éditions MultiMondes, 2005.
5. Rose Dufour, "Le vrai visage des "prostitueurs", Québec, La Gazette des femmes, janv.-fév. 2005.
5 Op. cit., CSF.
6 Lin Lean Lim, The Sex Sector : The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia, Genève, Organisation internationale du travail (OIT), 1998 ou voir Janice Raymond, Legitimating prostitution as sex work : UN Labor, Organization (ILO) calls for recognition of the sex industry, 1998.
7. Delphine Saubaber, "Paroles d’anciennes", L’Express, 22.08.02.
8. La parole aux prostituées.
9 Ibid.
10. Lire l’article.
11. Sheila Jeffreys, La légalisation de la prostitution, une expérience qui a échoué en Australie : lire l’article.
The Legalisation of Prostitution : A failed social experiment, October 2003 : lire le texte anglais.
12. Richard Poulin, La Mondialisation des industries du sexe- - Prostitution, pornographie, traite des femmes et des enfants, Ottawa, L’Interligne, 2004.
13. Voir en particulier :Dominique Foufelle, Les survivantes parlent aux survivantes
Op. cit., Jeanne Cordelier.
Op. cit., Agnès Laury.
Nancy Huston, Mosaïque de la pornographie (Marie-Thérèse/Vie d’une prostituée), Paris, Denoël/Gonthier, 1986.
Nicole Castiani, Le soleil au bout de la nuit, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998.
Op. cit., Delphine Saubaber.
"Entretiens avec Cathy, ex-prostitutée", Nouvelles Questions Féministes, No. 2/2002.
Témoignages : La parole aux prostituées (Québec)
Témoignages de survivantes (France)
14. Voir en annexe : Élaine Audet, Perspectives féministes sur la prostitution, postface, Richard Poulin, La mondialisation des industries du sexe, Ottawa, Les Éditions l’Interligne, 2004.
15. Élaine Audet et Micheline Carrier, Le modèle suédois : une source d’inspiration, non une panacée, 16 décembre 2004.
16. Yolande Geadah, La prostitution, un métier comme un autre ?, VLB, Montréal, 2003.
17. Op. cit., Richard Poulin.
18. Op. cit., Jeffreys.
19. Recherche de la Metropolitan University, A Critical Examination of Responses to Prostitution in Four Countries : Victoria, Australia ; Ireland ; the Netherlands ; and Sweden, 4 février 2004, site du gouvernement de l’Écosse : lire le texte ici.
20. La Suède voit la prostitution comme de la violence faite aux femmes, 2004 : lire ici.
21. Sweden Traiting Prostitution as Violence Against Women, 2004 : lire ici.
22. RQCALACS, Dossier sur la prostitution, 2002 et le site du Regroupement.
23. Mouvement du Nid (France).
24. Marianne Eriksson, Rapport sur les conséquences de l’industrie du sexe dans l’Union européenne, avril 2004.
25. Élaine Audet et Micheline Carrier, Une trentaine de personnalités demandent la décriminalisation des personnes prostituées, mais non de la prostitution, novembre 2004 et en anglais
Elaine Audet and Micheline Carrier, Some thirty personnalities ask to decriminalize prostitutes, not prostitution, December 2004.


Élaine Audet, La prostitution : droits des femmes ou droit aux femmes, 11 septembre, 2002.
Élaine Audet, Prostitution : Rights of Women or Rights to Women, september 17th, 2002.
Kathleen Barry, The Prostitution of Sexuality, New York, New York University Press, 1995.
Kathleen Barry, Female Sexual Slavery, New York, New York University Press, 1985.
Fédération des femmes du Québec,
Rapport du Comité de réflexion sur la prostitution et le travail du sexe, août 2001.
Gisèle Halimi, "Débat autour de la légalisation de la prostitution - L’esclavage sexuel, pépère et labellisé ", Montréal, Le Devoir, 1er août, 2002.
Le Nouvel Observateur, dossier, "L’aggravation de la prostitution relance le débat", no 1972, 22 août 2002.
Le Nouvel Observateur, dossier, "Prostitution. Les nouvelles mafias", no 1854, 18 mai, 2000.
Marie-Victoire Louis, " Le corps humain mis sur le marché ", Le Monde Diplomatique/Manière de voir, no 44, mars-avril 1999.
Florence Montreynaud, " La prostitution, un droit de l’homme ? ", Le Monde Diplomatique/Manière de voir, no 44, mars-avril 1999.
Lucile Ouvrard, La prostitution : Analyse juridique et choix de politique criminelle, L’Harmattan Sciences Criminelles, 2000.
Janice G. Raymond, Dix raisons pour ne pas légaliser la prostitution, octobre 2003.
Janice G. Raymond, Ten Reasons for not legalizing prostitution, April 2003.
Danielle Stanton, " Prostitution un crime ? ", Gazette des femmes, Mai-juin 2000, Vol. 22, no 1.


 Coalition contre le trafic des femmes (CATW)
  Gouvernement français,
Les systèmes de la prostitution. Une violence à l’encontre des femmes.
  Lobby Européen des Femmes.
 Marie-Victoire Louis.
 Mouvement du Nid.
  Prostitution- Research & Education.

Elaine Audet is a poet, essayist, and independent researcher. Her last essay is Feminist Perspectives on Prostitution, afterword of La Mondialisation des industries du sexe - Prostitution, pornographie, traite des femmes et des enfants by Richard Poulin. From 1989 till 2004, she was responsible for the column "Women’s Movement" in the monthly magazine of political information, l’aut’journal and, since 2002, she is associate publisher of Sisyphe Website. She has been interested for a long time by the problem of prostitution and the different forms of violence against women.


Soleil noir, poésie, Paris, Nouvelles éditions Debresse, 1958.
Pierre-feu, poésie, illustrations de Claude Carette. Genève, Poésie vivante, 1966.
La Passion des mots, Montréal, L’Hexagone, 1989.
Pour une éthique du bonheur/ chroniques de l’imposture, Montréal, éditions du remue-ménage/l’aut’journal, 1994.
Le Cycle de l’éclair, poésie, illustrations de Jeannine Bourret, Québec, Le Loup de Gouttière, 1996.
Le Coeur pensant/ courtepointe de l’amitié entre femmes, Québec, Le Loup de Gouttière, 2000.
Louise Vandelac-L’Amour du vivant/portrait d’un parcours exemplaire, Montréal, L’Apostrophe/éditions du renouveau québécois, 2001.

Collective Books

Polytechnique 6 décembre, Montréal, éditions du remue-ménage, 1990.
Les Femmes et l’information, Montréal, Agenda remue-ménage, 1993.
Pour un pays sans armée, Montréal, Écosociété, 1993.
Trente lettres pour un oui, Montréal, Stanké, 1995.
Perspectives féministes sur la prostitution, postface de La Mondialisation des industries du sexe - Prostitution, pornographie, traite des femmes et des enfants by Richard Poulin, Ottawa, L’Interligne, 2004.

On Sisyphe, March 14, 2005.

Elaine Audet

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