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Prostitution inseparable of violence against women

2 juin 2005

par Lee Lakeman

I’m the regional representative for B.C. and the Yukon of the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres. I’ve been working with victims of rape and sexual assault since 1973, so I embody much of the Canadian history of the development of rape crisis centres and transition houses. I’m now part of the national decision-making body of CASAC, which includes CALACS from Quebec and other individual member centres. I am newly elected by the Canadian Women’s March Committee to the international committee discussing prostitution.
I have been taking positions on prostitution for as long as I can remember. In the first years of transition houses, it was a big surprise to realize that many of the women who came to shelters had also at some point or another experienced prostitution, usually on a temporary basis. We had to very quickly realize that there was a connection between women who had suffered incest, women who were dealing with prostitution, and women who were dealing with wife assault. For me, it is impossible to separate those issues. I come at the issue of prostitution as being violence against women. They’re not separable in my mind.

What I would like to talk to you about, though, is that I think the current discussion in the Canadian situation has everything to do with changes in Canadian governance and the economic situation in Canada. It has much more to do with that than with the issues of prostitution that were being discussed during the Fraser commission. I think this is perhaps the most important thing that needs to be considered.

For five years I have received research funds from the Department of Justice for a five-year, cross-Canada project examining how cases of violence against women manage to be pushed out of the criminal justice system. How is it that we have such a low conviction rate ? How is it that so many are pushed off stage ? During the course of that research, it has been made clear to us that the changes in governance in Canada are a big factor in what’s going on in the prostitution discussion as well as in the criminal justice discussion. That project is called LINKS. Its report will be out by the end of 2003. It will be released in Vancouver. It examines the changes in Canadian governance that have meant not only a complete change in the relationship to NGOs, particularly women’s groups, but it also talks about the loss of welfare as a level of redistribution of income within Canada, not as a service. It talks about the promotion of prostitution, which is how I would now categorize the political process we’re part of.

Prostitution and neoliberalism

The changes in the informal economy are evident in every major city. There are now more women—and young women and young men, but I’m speaking particularly about the situation of adult women—on the street than there ever have been in my lifetime. It is a phenomenon that cannot be separated from the changes in the economy, including the loss of welfare and the loss of the public sector. It’s not for me to talk about the loss of the public sector. I think other people can do that much better. But from answering a crisis line and being in a transition house and a rape crisis centre—which I still do every day, and that’s where my work is centred—I can tell you that it is impossible not to recognize the relationship between the changes in the economy and what’s going on with prostitution. That’s the first thing I want to say. Unless you go looking for it, I don’t think you’ll hear that in this discussion.

The research will substantiate some of what I’m saying, but I largely have to bank on the fact that I have a lifelong reputation of doing this work and I do know some things. You can take that for what it’s worth.

Legalization of organized crime

I can tell you very clearly that we are pushing numbers of people out from under the law-and-order agenda, which I’ve always worried about. We are now pushing more and more people out to the rule of motorcycle gangs and criminal elements of that sort. Organized crime is a serious phenomenon in the major cities and in relation to prostitution. I don’t know how anybody can think we’re going to change exit services, the policing of violence against women, and prostitution without dealing with this issue. It is a matter of governance. It has been dramatic in the major cities, but it has also been dramatic in cities as small as Winnipeg. I think it would be foolhardy to make recommendations about prostitution that do not take those issues into account.

My original position on prostitution was that we should immediately decriminalize in order to protect the women. I am now not so sure that’s the right thing to do at this moment. With the absence of services and funding and with the cuts and the devolution of powers, I am very worried that decriminalization will simply abandon women in very large numbers to the streets of the urban centres, where they will be pushed around for the purposes of real estate. I can’t say this strongly enough. I think the context is entirely different from the last time we discussed this issue. So I would urge you not to make any decriminalization moves that don’t take into account that you are in essence legalizing a huge threatening trade. I urge you to think about this as a growing industry that is completely beyond regulation. If you decriminalize, you remove the largest power we have to deal with that industry. This is my worry. It has also been articulated by people working in other countries. I’ll give you some websites and contacts with regard to other people’s research on that.

A question of women’s human rights and of the redistribution of income

We held a forum in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago. In Vancouver, the city government was elected because the public is very concerned about the plight of the people in the downtown eastside. I think it’s important to recognize that no government has been given a mandate to end welfare. No government has been given a mandate to carry out the destruction of services that have actually been carried out. In Vancouver we’ve gone even further. The city government was elected to help solve the problem of the ghetto. It was out of people’s goodwill that they were elected. It is, of course, cynical politics since I don’t see how that city government has any chance of actually affecting the income of those people or the problems they’re facing. That’s exactly what you will be generating if you devolve this problem to the city level. Cities cannot cope with this issue.

It’s a basic issue of women’s human rights and of the redistribution of income. It’s a basic issue of what we are all entitled to as human beings, including the protection of the state. I urge you not to take it out of that context. That’s my strongest message. I can back it up with statistics and contacts. I wanted to communicate that concept. This is not 1970. In 1970 I argued decriminalization. I’m saying to you now think twice. Be very careful about this.

Lee Lakeman’s testimony for the Subcommittee on Solicitation Lawsof the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights.

On Sisyphe, June 13, 2005.

Lee Lakeman

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