A piece published in the Toronto Star over the weekend may have led you to believe it would, as the headline: “Feminists take opposite stands on prostitution” alludes, explore different feminist positions on prostitution and prostitution law.
The author, Rosie DiManno (“one of the Star’s best and most prolific writers!“), immediately trips all over herself in an attempt to rile up some page views by framing feminist positions on prostitution as “completely oppositional,” following through with a 1300-word story she made up in her head about feminism. Cool story, Rosie! Oh wait, are we pretending this is journalism? Sweet.
As much as the prostitution debates in feminism are divisive, they aren’t “oppositional” (though, I don’t know how many more times I can point this out without feeling like no one really cares to cover these debates accurately). As DiManno may or may not know, the division among feminists (with regard to prostitution law, in any case), is centered around the criminalization of pimps and johns. It’s safe to say that the vast majority (if not all) of feminists advocate to decriminalize prostituted women. It’s also safe to say that all feminists want an end to violence against women, including women working in the sex industry. The value in pointing this out is both to find common ground, because there’s lots of it, but also to avoid falling back on tropes and nonexistant stereotypes. In terms of having this debate with some kind of integrity and with the goal of finding a real and viable path towards equality (which, one would like to presume is a goal of feminism), honesty is useful.
And with that point, the “honesty” one, let’s move back to DiManno. The headline suggests we can expect a fair shake of sorts — a piece that explores two sides of an argument. “Misleading” is a tepid word in this case, as it becomes immediately clear that DiManno’s goal is anything but exploratory, unbiased, or honest. Which isn’t to say I think we must be unbiased in our writing, but rather that it’s reasonable to expect, at very least, some level of truth. Particularly when we are trying to convince our readers we are, indeed, exploring two sides of a debate with integrity. DiManno’s goal, it’s clear, is not only to further divide, but to do so on deceptive ground.
Let’s start at the beginning (maybe take this opportunity to take some Gravol or grab a drink), with DiManno’s explanation of these “dual, completely oppositional feminist perspectives on prostitution”:
"The first operates from a premise that sex for money — the business of prostitutes — is inherently wrong and exploitive. These arguments cleave to a time immemorial moral disapproval, which is why its proponents, though often calling themselves feminists — and by many definitions they indeed are — have a great deal more in common with religious organizations and the family values mob."
OH ROSIE. Let’s try this again. The abolitionist position (is this what we’re talking about? You’ve yet to say exactly WHO it is you are pretending to characterize here) argues that women’s bodies are not things that exist for male use. We argue that women should not have to resort to selling sex in order to survive or to feed their kids. We argue that prostitution exists as a direct result of class, race, and gender inequality. “Moral disapproval” has no more to do with our approach and ideology than socialism is about “moralizing” against the exploitative nature of capitalism. It could be argued that advocating towards an equitable society is about morals, if you believe that equality is “right” and inequality is “wrong”; but I’m pretty sure that’s not where you were going with this. Case-in-point: This line, which claims feminists have “a great deal more in common with religious organizations and the family values mob.”
Well I don’t know, because as an atheist and as a person who rejects the nuclear family model, the institution of marriage, and traditional notions about women’s primary purpose in society as baby-maker, I’ve never felt I had much in common “with religious organizations and the family values mob.” The Christian right doesn’t think prostitution is “bad” because they want an end to male power and to elevate the status of women. They think it’s bad because they believe sex shouldn’t happen outside of marriage or without the purpose of baby-making/maintaining a traditional, heterosexual, patriarchal family. This position is actually “oppositional” (you know that word, right, Rosie?) to the feminist position on, well, everything.
At the most radical end of that spectrum, some might even subscribe to the infamous assertion by the late anarchist Andrea Dworkin that “all heterosexual sex is rape’’
It’s high time (and by “high time,” of course, I mean: Clearly none of you give any fucks about accuracy) people stopped misquoting Dworkin on this non-point. You could try actually reading her work, or you could do a quick Google search for: “Dworkin ‘all heterosexual sex is rape.’’’
Go on. I’ll wait.
Ok. Let’s compare notes. You likely came across a number of entries correcting this common (and intentionally, lazily manipulative) misrepresentation/myth. One of those places was likely a Wikipedia entry which clarifies that, while Dworkin was, yes, very critical of heterosexual sex as both the norm and as a potential space for female subordination within the context of a patriarchal society, there is actually no place in the history of ever where she is quoted as saying “all heterosexual sex is rape” (Quick tip for future reference: Quotations often imply that you are quoting someone). Dworkin herself corrected this misinterpretation a number of times over (for example, in this interview from 1995 — That’s over FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, folks! Think it might be time to put this one to rest?), saying things like: “I think both intercourse and sexual pleasure can and will survive equality,” and “Since the paradigm for sex has been one of conquest, possession, and violation, I think many men believe they need an unfair advantage, which at its extreme would be called rape. I do not think they need it.” (Again, this information is available via handy Wikipedia! You don’t even have to do any real reading or research to know what you’re talking about — That should please you immensely, Rosie).
So it’s not actually possible to subscribe to a notion that doesn’t exist, for starters and while, yes, there are some anti-PIV feminists, I nor any of the women I work with in the abolition movement believe that “all sex is rape”.
Now, you got the Nordic model mostly right, Rosie (nice one!) — It’s a feminist model that sees prostitution as a product of patriarchy (and capitalism) and, works towards a society where women have other options than to sell sex while simultaneously teaches men that it is not their right to use women’s bodies simply because they have an erection/cash. There is absolutely no argument that can be made to argue that prostitution is not a gendered industry when 80-90% of prostitutes are women. We are all, also, fully aware that the vast, vast majority of clients/johns are men (even when sex is being bought from other men and boys). The Nordic model targets male buyers rather than female prostitutes because of the gendered (and economic) power imbalance. That is also why we call this model a “feminist” one. Violence against sex workers happens at the hands of men, and therefore the focus should be on the perpetrators. You can call that “aggressive” if you like, provided that you admit that you think feminist ideology is somehow “aggressive” and then provide an argument that backs up the notion that working to end the oppression of, and subsequent violence against, women is, somehow “aggressive.” Be sure to let us all know what you come up with.
Next up: the Bedford v. Canada case.
Bedford v. Canada was initiated by Alan Young. He brought on three women, two of which have aged out of prostitution and are looking to open and brothels, as part of his efforts to challenge Canada’s prostitution laws. Currently the laws in Canada criminalize living on the avails of prostitution (pimping), communicating in a public place for the purposes of prostitution, and running a bawdy house (brothel). On September 28, 2010, Justice Susan Himel ruled for the Ontario Superior Court that these three provisions were unconstitutional and struck them down. That decision was appealed and went on to the Ontario Court of Appeal.
On March 26, 2012, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down the bawdy house law, upheld the law criminalizing communication (the law that, in essence, criminalizes women working the streets), and found the “living on the avails” law should apply only in “circumstances of exploitation” (so no real change there as that is, after all, the point of that law).
At this point, the impact of this decision is nil (and would have only had immediate impact on Ontario’s prostitution law, as the laws are decided on a province-to-province basis) and the judgment was appealed and is going on to the Supreme Court of Canada (scheduled for hearing on June 12th, 2013).
DiManno claims that “neither side was happy” with the Court of Appeal’s decision (because it left the communication law intact), but that’s actual bullshit. Both Young and his clients were elated by the decision, calling it a “emancipation day for sex workers” and a “victory.” This is because the primary purpose for the case was not to decriminalize street prostitution, but to legalize brothels. Bedford herself is quoted as saying: “I was mainly concerned with winning the bawdy house law because of what happened to me at Thornhill” (Bedford’s “Bondage Bungalow” in Thornhill, Ontario was raided in 1994 and she was charged with keeping a common bawdy house, which is what lead her to get involved in this case).
DiManno goes on to quote “Jane Doe” who seems to be under the impression that she’s debating someone (evil, imaginary feminists, one might presume?), who says she “rejects outright the moralizing quotient and maintains that keeping solicitation on the books, in fact, furthers violence against women, particularly the most marginalized prostitutes who will continue to work on the streets.”
This statement manipulatively implies that, somehow, there is a “moralistic” faction of feminists who want to criminalize prostitutes, placing the Bedford claimants on the other end of this imagined spectrum which, as noted above, is a lie.
DiManno continues to quote this anonymous person in order to confirm and reinforce all the sweeping and untrue stereotypes she set out to “prove” in the first place — comparing the religious right and radical feminists, and making the mysterious claim that abolitionists believe “prostitution is responsible for all violence against women, but especially sexual assault.”
I will say this again, though I doubt it will stick and imagine I’ll be repeating this for the rest of my life so long as folks like DiManno feel comfortable ignoring facts, research, and ideology; publishing bold-faced lies in order to put forth their arguments (to what end, I have no idea, really, as that which women like DiManno might see as a successful outcome of these misrepresentations — the decriminalization of pimps and johns — has been proven disastrous): Feminists don’t hate sex, they don’t think prostituted women are “bad,” and they aren’t “anti-sex worker.” Abolitionists are far more “pro-sex” (if you want to call it that), than those who believe sex is something that should happen under duress or out of desperation. You want “enthusiastic consent”? That’s not going to happen under a model that treats prostitution as a social safety net. If a woman needs to give blow jobs to pay her rent or feed her kids, that doesn’t count as “enthusiastic consent” — that counts as having no other choice.
And finally, we come to exit programs. An integral part of any system that wishes to help women leave the sex industry if they desire. Jane Doe says:
What the state offers right now are exit programs. The police arrest you and the woman is given a choice — get charged and go to jail or take this exit program. They’ll teach you how to use a computer, how to put your resumé together, and the ill of your ways. I know what I’d choose between those two. They’re completely ineffective and insulting to adult women. They encourage you to get the job at McDonald’s. Women can do that all by themselves, without exit programs.
So actually no. There are no real exiting programs in Canada. Nothing comprehensive or functional, in any case, if what we’re looking at is actually helping and supporting women who want to leave the industry. And the thing is that, if we legalize or completely decriminalize prostitution, we lose any and all leverage we might have in terms of lobbying the government to allocate money for these kinds of programs because prostitution becomes just a job like any other. Do we provide exiting programs for people who work as massage therapists? Or as waitresses? Do you need an exiting program and years of therapy, drug treatment, retraining, safe housing, and treatment for PTSD when you quit your job at the coffee shop? Nope. Think there might be a reason for that?
In Sweden, one of the progressive countries that’s adopted the Nordic model, when the police come across a john and a prostitute they offer the man the choice of admitting the offense and paying a fine, based on income, or going to court (but then risking publicity). The prostituted woman, “who hasn’t broken any law, is offered help from social services if she wants to leave prostitution. Otherwise, she’s allowed to go.”
If we can all agree, which it seems we can, that “the violence is the problem,’’ then we should also be able to agree that it is the source of that violence that needs to be addressed. There’s some common ground for you.
And to DiManno: Lying and manipulating readers via misguided, misinformed, misrepresentative, anti-feminist diatribes is almost as bad as liberally quoting an anonymous source’s misguided and misinformed lies. I don’t know what the Toronto Star thinks it’s publishing, but it isn’t journalism. It isn’t even an informed opinion. Shame.
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.