A rejoinder to a recent article about prostitution in Vancouver.
An article I wrote on prostitution for BCBusiness was published this month, and just as it hit the stands a series of ads from the Salvation Army titled "The Truth Isn't Sexy" appear around town, even within the pages of our own magazine. The visual contrast of the two works is striking. Our lead spread features a smiling young woman, lounging in her Victoria home. She's an escort I interviewed for the story, and in the text opposite the photo she describes the buckets of money she makes and the personal satisfaction she gets from her work. The Salvation Army ad on the other hand features an extreme close-up of a woman being brutally strangled alongside captions describing the horrific abuse she's made to endure. So what do we take away from these two images? Is it possible to accept one as truth without dismissing the other as ideological propaganda?
To make a mighty understatement: prostitution is a complex topic. And in my mind, the two images do not contradict each other. As far as I know, there are indeed happy sex workers (I met three in the course of my research, for whatever that's worth). At the same time, horrible things also happen to people in this profession. Anyone in B.C., the home province of Robert Pickton, who isn't aware of this has been neglecting public affairs to an almost unforgivable extent. It leaves us with a question about what to do about it. And people I spoke to for my article had some rather different ideas. One camp wants prostitution decriminalized, arguing that women have a right to engage in "sex work"; the other side wants it abolished, saying no one should have the right to "buy and sell women." The latter statement still puzzles me. To be perfectly clear, I believe buying and selling women is abhorrent and should be fought relentlessly. But I assume we're talking about slavery here, and not necessarily prostitution, right? We'd equally oppose enslaved women forced to work in sweat shops, wouldn't we? Because the sex workers I spoke to for my article were not slaves, and they'd be justifiably insulted to be called so. They are selling a service (albeit a very personal one); they are not selling themselves. There is violence and exploitation in the sex industry – likewise in agriculture, textiles, manufacturing, etc. The difference being that no one is proposing we shut down the textile industry because it utilizes sweat shops. If seems to me that if your goal is to protect workers, you fix the workplace; that's the idea I hoped to explore in my article. And you do it even for industries you don't like. One of my sources explained it to me like this: you might not like the munitions industry – you can say it's "wrong" – but you can still want the factory workers to be safe.