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5 Reasons Criminalizing Sex Worker Clients Doesn't Work

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After writing yesterday's article on why "Sex Workers Deserve to Have Our Voices Heard," I wanted to elaborate on the so-called "abolitionist" perspective, and provide real and concrete reasons why this perspective is deeply flawed. As the Supreme Court of Canada begins deliberating the fate of the existing laws restricting sex work, it is vital to examine the suggested alternatives, and expose their weaknesses, before public opinion embraces them without knowing their true consequences. Though it purports itself to be a policy that protects and respects women, the "abolitionist approach" is nothing more than a ruse, and does nothing at all to help those of us who participate in the sex industry.

The basic premise of this approach suggests that the purchase of sexual services constitutes violence against women, and all sex workers are victims of violence. Therefore, the only way to combat exploitation is to remove criminal sanctions against sex workers, and criminalize the clients instead. In this system, the purchase of sexual services becomes illegal, while the sale of sexual services remains legal. It's known by a number of names, including "abolitionism", "The Swedish/Nordic Model" or its technical term of asymmetrical criminalization; but the policy, by any other name, remains inherently flawed.

Here are five reasons why this approach (I don't believe it's a "model" for anything) does not work, and is counterproductive to our attempts to reduce and eliminate the exploitation of sex workers:

1) It's dangerous. Criminalizing clients puts sex workers in danger by making it harder for us to verify a client prior to accepting an appointment. One way that sex workers keep ourselves safe is through verification; I insist that potential clients provide me with information about themselves before I agree to see them. I ask for their name, phone number, email address, and basic physical description, and having this information acts as a deterrent to bad behaviour. By refusing to grant them total anonymity, I ensure that anyone who tries to take advantage of me can be held accountable, because they know I have enough information about them to report them to the authorities.

Sex workers will often use third-party verification services, and we provide references to other sex workers for our "good" clients, while also reporting "bad" clients to keep each other safe. If clients are at risk of prosecution, they will be reluctant to provide the information we need to keep ourselves free of violence, and we will be forced to accept clients without having those critical details that ensure our safety.

2) It's illogical and ineffective. It makes no logical sense to make it illegal to purchase something, but legal to sell it. That's like letting attractive young women hand out packs of cigarettes in the middle of the public square, but anyone who lights one gets arrested for doing so. It makes no sense to criminalize one side of a transaction but not the other, and there are no examples of such an approach having any effect on the demand of any other product.

Though proponents of this policy pretend that Sweden is an example of success, criminalizing clients in Sweden has not reduced overall demand; it has merely exported it. Swedish clients simply travel across the Øresund to Denmark, which decriminalized sex work in 1999, to fulfill their desires. All the statistical reductions that Sweden claims have resulted from its asymmetrical approach are entirely due to the exporting of demand -- the demand hasn't disappeared, it's just migrated across the strait to another country.

3) It's misguided. The entire policy is based around a false premise, which claims that male sexual desire -- and the accompanying purchase of sexual services -- is inherently violent. The demonization of men who purchase sex is not based on anything more than a stereotype, and the evidence is starting to accumulate showing that stereotype to be false.

A recent Canadian study conducted at Simon Fraser University called "Johns' Voice" found that many male clients value companionship at least as much as sex, and have a wide range of motivations for seeking out paid companions. Many are widowed, or divorced, or involved in open marriages; some have physical disabilities which limit their dating options; some feel that seeing a sex worker as an educator can help them learn to be better sexual companions in their dating relationships. There are a variety of reasons that clients seek out sex workers, and to generalize all of them as violent or exploitative is grossly inaccurate.

4) It's discriminatory. This policy doesn't just discriminate against clients, by falsely painting them as evil and exploitative; it also discriminates against sex workers by painting us all as victims. As I wrote yesterday, it is impossible to watch the dozens of rallies in support of sex workers' rights that occurred on June 8, and conclude that all women in the sex industry are coerced. When thousands of women across the country stand up and demand our rights, a sensible person would take notice; proponents of this approach refuse to listen to sex workers, and refuse to acknowledge our ability to make choices for ourselves.

Calling us "prostituted women" implies that we are coerced into sex work exclusively through external influences, and the reality about sex work could not be more wrong. Ultimately, criminalization of any consensual sexual act is contrary to our values as Canadians, and there is no legitimate reason for the state to intrude in the sex lives of its citizens. Whatever reasons a person has for choosing to sleep with another person -- whether it's love, money, or something else entirely -- it's not the government's place to evaluate the sexual choices of consenting Canadians.

5) It's short-sighted. The most damaging consequence of asymmetrical criminalization is the loss of a valuable resource in the fight against exploitation. In my previous role of Executive Director of the Sex Professionals of Canada, I was contacted on multiple occasions by clients who had unwittingly been brought into a situation where the sex worker they were seeing was not there by choice. Several clients told me that they felt the worker was being drugged or coerced by the owner of the agency she was working for; in one particular case, a client told me he noticed bruises on her arms and wrists. By providing me with this information, I was able to relay the name of the sex worker and agency owner to Detective Wendy Leaver, former head of the Special Victims Section of Toronto Police Services' Sex Crimes Unit, and she was able to intervene and stop the exploitation immediately.

I cannot emphasize enough how critical the voices of clients are in stopping violence against sex workers. Without the courage of the client to speak up and report the situation, the exploitation would have continued for much longer, with horrible consequences for the woman who was being victimized. If the client was worried about prosecution for admitting he purchased sexual services, he would never have reported the exploitation, and asymmetrical criminalization all but guarantees that this violence can continue for much longer than it might otherwise. The vast majority of clients are not bad people, and do not want to see violence continue -- we ignore their voices at our own peril.

For those who truly wish to end exploitation of those in the sex trade, full decriminalization is the only option. You cannot push any elements of an industry underground, on either the supply side or the demand side, and expect it to remain free of violence and criminal exploitation. Only by removing the legal sanctions against both clients and providers can we have any hope of combating the negative elements that involve themselves in the sex industry; criminalization has never been an effective means of controlling the industry, and pushing a market further into darkness has never done anything to help those involved in it.

On June 13, a number of women's groups will speak in front of Canada's Supreme Court, and will advocate for a policy that is dangerous, ineffective, misguided, discriminatory, and short-sighted. Until these groups stop seeing sex workers as nothing more than victims, and stop ignoring us when we take to the streets to demand our rights, they will never truly represent sex workers, and cannot claim to have our best interests at heart. It's time to stop supporting a flawed approach, and start focusing on ways to help sex workers protect ourselves from violence. Criminalization of consensual sex -- for anyone -- will never be a solution.