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Prostitution of First Nations Women in Canada

17 mai 2005

par Jacqueline Lynn, researcher

I’d like to begin by talking about prostitution of first nations women in Canada. There has never been a time in Canadian history since European contact that first nations women have not been sexually exploited in prostitution. In its earliest days, when Canada functioned primarily as a military and commercial outpost of Great Britain, the Hudson’s Bay Company prohibited European women from immigrating to Canada. European men demanded sexual accessibility to first nations women, so Canada’s first brothels were established around military bases and trading posts. First nations women were used in prostitution from first contact, and I propose to you today that present-day prostitution of first nations women is a particularly sexual and violent legacy of colonialism.

There are two essential ideas we need to know in order to understand how first nations women are prostituted in Canada today. Firstly, we need to know that the supply side of prostitution requires a devalued class of women. Secondly, we need to know that colonialism, through its powerfully oppressive and interlocking forces, subjugated first nations women and produced such a class.

Most of the urgent needs that first nations people are trying to heal today as a result of being colonized, such as poverty, childhood sexual abuse, childhood physical abuse and neglect, husband violence, family addictions, and alcoholism, are the same issues that render first nations women highly vulnerable to being recruited into prostitution.

A highly organized sex economy

Canadian first nations prostituted women form part of a highly organized sex economy that exploits millions of indigenous women globally. Prostituted indigenous women are the most disenfranchised women in the world.

Article 4 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women recommends that state parties recognize that some groups of women are rendered particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, such as minority and indigenous women, women subject to racial discrimination, rural women, ethnically and socially marginalized women, and women with disabilities caused by substance abuse.

I’d like momentarily to talk about the essence of this thing called the prostitution exchange. If Canada truly wants to stop the violence—and I believe the committee is here to hear different people’s opinions about how to do so—perpetrated against women in prostitution and particularly those who are most vulnerable, specifically first nations women, then we must understand that the prostitution exchange in and of itself is intrinsically violent.

A bought rape

Putting aside for a moment, but not forgetting, the everyday violence prostituted women experience, such as the assaults from pimps and johns and the social contempt of society, I want to tell you what prostituted women have told me about their experience of being used in prostitution. Women have described what johns do to them as bought-and-sold acts of rape, which are unwanted, violating, and assaultive. The bought rape of prostitution is not just one rape, as in stranger or date rape. Prostitution is continuous rape by multiple strangers day in and day out, year after year. To be prostituted is to be gang-raped over and over.

Johns buy women’s bodies so that they can masturbate on, in, and around them. While they’re doing this, they expect from prostituted women the appearance of pleasure and consent. While a john masturbates in, on, and around a woman’s body, he also verbally assaults her. Almost 90% of the Vancouver prostituted women I interviewed in a recent study reported being verbally assaulted by johns. Verbal assault is a taken-for-granted part of the prostitution exchange.

For a moment I want you to recall, if you will, the last time someone made a remark that embarrassed or insulted you. Think about how that remark made you feel, and remember how you chose to respond.

For another moment, I want you to imagine that you are a woman who is being used in prostitution. Every time a john buys your body to masturbate in, on, or around, he has pornographic vignettes running in his head, and he re-enacts these vignettes on your body. While he is masturbating, he tells you that you are a dirty whore, or a nasty skank, or that sucking is really all you’re good for. You are nothing more than a sexualized, commodified collection of body parts to him.

While he is sexually and verbally assaulting you to achieve his pleasure, you have to listen to his verbal degradation. You have to spread your legs, you have to open your arms, and you have to open your mouth. You have to seemingly invite and embrace this continuous onslaught of sexual and verbal assault. This is the so-called work of prostitution. It demeans, it humiliates, and it devastates the women in prostitution who are used this way.

A sexualized male violence

If we are to intervene effectively in the lives of Canadian prostituted women we must educate ourselves to understand that prostitution is sexualized male violence. We must then create public policies, programs, and service delivery that reflect this knowledge.

If we viewed prostitution as violence, we would know that no matter where it takes place, whether a prostituted woman is on the streets or in a decriminalized prostitution zone ; whether she is being sexually exploited through online prostitution or on a strip club runway ; whether she is in a private room in a massage parlour or in a house ; or whether she’s being prostituted from reserve to city or across international borders, she is being bought. We would understand that the process whereby a prostituted woman comes to view herself as product and merchandise is the worst form of dehumanization imaginable, and that prostitution in all its forms is sexual assault against all women and a violation of their basic human rights.

Sweden’s reform an inspiration

If we legislatively recognize prostitution as violence toward women, we would stop men from buying women, and we would stop men from profiting from the sale of them. Canada needs to look to Sweden concerning solicitation law reform. In Sweden, prostitution is officially acknowledged as a form of male violence against women and children. One cornerstone of its policies against prostitution is its focus on its root cause : the recognition that without men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation, the global prostitution industry would not be able to flourish and expand.

Sweden penalizes men who exploit women sexually, and penalizes men who profit from this exploitation. Sweden does not penalize women who are prostituted, because the government recognizes it’s not reasonable to punish a person who sells a sexual service. Sweden’s law reads, "In the majority of cases at least, this person is a weaker partner who is exploited by those who want only to satisfy their sexual drives".

The desire to quit prostitution

Most of the Canadian prostituted women I have spoken to, half of whom were of first nation ancestry, voiced several needs in terms of making their lives safer and better. One of their first and foremost needs is to leave prostitution. Women have also said there are virtually no programs or services that can help them do so.
I believe that we Canadians have confounded the issue of prostitution, and we have also confused ourselves. While we are busy touring nationally and perhaps internationally seeking answers from other countries, some of which have normalized and legally sanctioned prostitution, Canada’s prostituted women remain trapped. I am deeply concerned that Canada will legislate for decriminalization of prostitution to all parties concerned. If this occurs, we will offer no hope for a better future ; a future in which women are free from the sexual exploitation that is prostitution.

Sweden defends the principles of legal, political, economic, and social equality for women and girls because it rejects the notion that women and girls, mostly girls, are commodities that need to be bought, sold, and sexually exploited by men. To do otherwise is to allow that a separate class of female human beings, especially women and girls who are economically and racially marginalized, is excluded from these measures, as well as from the universal protection of human dignity enshrined in the body of international human rights instruments developed during the past 50 years.

I would like to end with a quote from Kathleen Barry’s work entitled "The Prostitution of Sexuality" :

    Strategies to confront sexual exploitation should be as global as the economy is international, and as the dimensions of women’s subordination are universal, and as radical as is the rootedness of the prostitution of sexuality. As domination produces despair, struggle for liberation is the act of hope. Hope shatters the conviction that domination is inevitable, especially in a case of sexual exploitation, particularly in regard to prostitution.

 French Version/Version française


March 30th 2005, audience of the Subcommitte on Sollicitation Laws.

On Sisyphe, May 17, 2005.

Jacqueline Lynn, researcher

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