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Watching the Watchdog: Canada's Prostitution Laws at the Supreme Court

06/21/2013 05:42 EDT | Updated 08/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

You may remember my column of a week ago headlined No Bad Whores, Only Bad Laws.

It was about prostitutes and their supporters protesting the laws which make prostitution in Canada legal but at the same time -- entirely illogically -- make it against the law to "communicate for the purposes of prostitution," "operate a bawdy house," or "live off the avails of prostitution."

Right now the Supreme Court of Canada is tackling the obvious contradictions implicit in this absurdity. In effect, the court is trying to decide whether brothels and their pimps/managers/bookkeepers/cleaning staff/bodyguards/chauffeurs etc. should be legalized.

While the Supremes ponder this age-old problem, I thought I'd write something about men I've known who lived at least partly off the "avails."

These weren't the pimps who kidnap girls -- underage or not -- turn them on to drugs, force them into prostitution and hold them by violence. Those people are scum. The lowest of the low.

Instead they were men who worked their own jobs and lived as part of a couple with women who chose to rent out their bodies for sex. (Note the chose.) Some of the women worked full-time. Others only when they needed extra cash. Some of the couples were married. Some lived common law.

Several of the men drove their women to dates and picked them up afterwards. Others simply and conveniently ignored their mates' choice of work. What they had in common was that like any other couples they looked after each other and shared incomes from their respective jobs. Which presumably made the men -- at least in the eyes of the law -- pimps.

What fascinated me most about these relationships was that the men, approved of their partners' line of work, accepted it, and presumably saw it as no challenge to their own masculine mojos. No easy accommodation.

Professional pimps (mostly men) were different.

For the most part though, they didn't fit their Hollywood image. Didn't load themselves with bling, drive pimpmobiles, beat their employees and deliberately turn them into junkies.

Instead, they saw themselves as professional businessmen whose job was to find customers, protect employees from violent johns, spring them from jail when necessary and take a well-deserved cut of the profits.

My friend, Samantha, the former prostitute and madam who wrote My Life In The Great Sexual Window(I edited the book) got involved with a professional pimp soon after her 19th birthday.

She had an interesting personal perspective on prostitutes and pimps.

To oversimplify perhaps -- whores need pimps because whores are women and women need to love and be loved. And it takes an exceptional straight man to love a working whore.

After a couple of months working for Josh, I start drifting away from my straight friends until I'm earning real money doing something I'm very good at and my only friends are other whores and the pimps who live off whores.

But every woman needs somebody, even if that somebody is an immoral, lying, exploitive scumbag like Josh, from so very long ago.

Pimps, you see, aren't there just to find johns for whores, protect them from bad dates and take their money. It's much more complex than that.

Most of the women in the game have low self-esteem (I was always different, of course). And unlike everyone else around -- husbands, boyfriends and johns who use them and leave them -- pimps are there when you need them most, always ready to sweet-talk you, flatter you, make you feel respected, needed, wanted, desired, loved.

It's strangely easy to believe pimp-talk. Like "honey, the other girls don't mean a thing to me. I love you. We'll get out of the game as soon as we have enough money and marry and have lots of lovely babies."

It's even strangely easy to love a pimp like -- at least for a while -- I loved Josh.

Pimps don't have to buy a whore's love, like johns do. The women give it eagerly, willingly. They're women and when you've been in the game for a while there's nobody but pimps to love and be loved by.

Earlier this month, a Ryerson University professor (Emily van der Meulen), a doctoral candidate at York University (Emily M. Durisin) and a member of Maggie's: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project (Victoria Love) published Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada. (University of British Columbia Press).

At $95 a copy, this is heavy, detailed, full of footnotes and certainly no titillating read.

But it does ask us to rethink how we view -- and why we so loudly and universally condemn -- the world's oldest profession.

Some quotes:

(The authors) present a more nuanced, balanced, and realistic view of the sex industry. They bring together a vast collection of voices -- including researchers, feminists, academics, and advocates, as well as sex workers of differing ages, genders, and sectors -- to engage in a dialogue that challenges the dominant narratives surrounding the sex industry and advances the idea that sex work is in fact work.

Prostitution has rarely been viewed as a legitimate form of labour. Instead, it has been criminalized, sensationalized, and polemicized across the socio-political spectrum by everyone from politicians to journalists to women's groups. Interest in and concern over sex work is not grounded in the lived realities of those who work in the industry, but rather in inflammatory ideas about who is participating, how they wound up in this line of work, and what form it takes.

Sex workers are compelled to work in an environment laden with risks and dangers. There is no question that many who work in the sex trade are easy targets for violent criminals. However the real problem is that the daily existence of the sex worker on the street is marked by the threat of assault and psychological terror, and due to the social marginalization and legal stigmatization of sex work, this violence is simply ignored or routinely addressed with utter indifference by all public officials.

My Life In The Great Sexual Window was published privately in 2009. In it, Samantha invented a new and more exotic persona for herself but wrote truthfully about her live in what she called "the game." She gave me the rights to the book when it became obvious that she wouldn't be able to promote it publicly without revealing her real identity.