University of Toronto Panel: “The Myth of Ending Demand For Prostitution”

by Irony Butterfly on November 3, 2011 · 8 comments

in Activism, Prostitution

Prostitutes are the new black in Canada. I’m proud to say that by and large, Canadian people seem pretty sympathetic to this a hot legal and social issue (despite annoying comments like “they should legalize and tax it.”  I wish I could emblazon on everyone’s brain that earnings from prostitution are already taxable). Prostitution laws in Canada are facing their most serious legal challenge in 20 years, and so far the prostitutes seem to be winning. The government’s stance of—I’m paraphrasing here—“Who cares if they get killed? They’re just prostitutes” has gone over poorly with the public and the courts.

Recently there was a panel organized by legal wunderkind Lisa Kelly on the new plan of the Conservative Canadian government to follow the Swedish model of criminalizing the purchase but not the sale of sex. The highlight was the discussion on how anti-client laws still made the prostitute the figure of stigma; that being seen talking to a prostitute could open you up to a world of hurt, legally speaking. They did share some fairly shocking policies. Some municipalities write a “Dear John” letter to men merely seen in areas where prostitution occurs when they have no evidence that they were, in fact, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, and send it to the address of the registered vehicle. Not only does this violate a variety of legal rights, but the letter could go to the person’s wife or boss or friend. I imagine Hertz is sick and tired of receiving these letters. So the result of “client centered” prostitution laws is that the prostitute is a socially contaminated figure, and merely being accused of talking to her or being in her vicinity makes you a bad person, and the police will gently suggest that maybe you shouldn’t be on streets with prostitutes on them in the future.

The other (you would imagine more contentious, but contention never arose) issue that came up was the construction of prostitution as violence against women and the resulting stigma against their clients as abusers. While I have grown accustomed to this insistence that the world consists of feminists victimizing (rhetorically or otherwise) sex workers, I was surprised by an insistence that male clients of prostitutes are also victims of feminists. Feminists, to this line of thought, have so successfully stigmatized seeking out prostitutes that men are helpless in their wake, their self-esteem has plummeted and they can no longer go to sex workers without feeling bad about themselves. I found that surprising—but I also found it not true. An astounding number of men go to see prostitutes. If, as we all insist, the criminal law has made no dent in the demand for prostitution, I certainly don’t think feminists reduced it. I am also unconvinced that the stigma attached to going to prostitutes is greater than being a prostitute (as one of the panellists posited). If you stood up a man who had visited prostitutes in a typical job interview next to a woman who was a prostitute, and openly acknowledged both histories—well, the woman would not get the job. And the great majority of arrests for prostitution-related offences are of prostitutes, not the men who patronize them.

I’m not entirely sure I believe in this particular stigma. The social stigma attached to going to a prostitute is related to the typical assertion of masculinity—like a “real man” can go out and seduce a woman without paying for it. Admitting that one cannot convince a woman to perform sex acts with you without payment is the embarrassment, not an inference that they are violent towards women. That is an old time stigma with misogynist overtones, not a feminist issue at all; prostitutes, to this line of thought are a dirty embarrassment and not as good as a “real woman.” The perspective that sex for money is constructive violence is a highly academic one. It has not, from where I stand and watch, made it into the general population. On the contrary, I think the social perspective is still, unfortunately, skewed the other way: that violence against sex workers is a qualitatively different kind of violence, if, indeed, it is “violence” at all.

We have to look past the occasions when this still fairly specialized theory is used and scrutinize who is using it. While Melissa Farley seems to believe she is a feminist (and she seems to be a true believer), let us take a minute and look at who is hiring her. Does that person or entity believe and promote these theories in their everyday operations, or do they appear to be using these theories to couch another, entirely different and oppositional agenda? Ms. Farley was recently an expert witness in Bedford v. Canada, the challenge to Canadian prostitution related laws. In that case the Respondent (trying to uphold the laws) was the Government of Canada, with Interveners (on the Respondent side): the Government of Ontario, the Christian Legal Fellowship, Real Women Canada, and the Catholic Civil Rights League. Farley was an expert witness for this dream team. To me, these organizations do not sound particularly feminist. If I was to speculate as to whether these organizations were concerned with the general welfare of sex workers and violence against said sex workers on a day to day basis, I would say they would fall closer to “The Opposite of Concerned” than “Very Concerned”. The Government of Canada refined its position for the appeal to argue that they are just under no obligation to care if prostitutes are endangered by their laws. Does that dovetail in any meaningful way with Farley’s position that prostitutes should all be on disability for PTSD?

I’m not saying that theorists like Melissa Farley are not a problem; indeed, Justice Susan Himel did not think much of her evidence or the rigour of her methods (skip to paragraph 352 in the above link if you want to read the Canadian judicial version of a bitchslap. That’s right. Melissa Farley is not well respected by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. Suck it). But we’re falling for some misdirection here. The real issue, if we are going to declare that feminism is the enemy of sex work and that feminists have progressed to the point where we are now oppressing male clients of sex workers, is who is using this research, and why. I don’t think that Ms. Farley is convincing a lot of people of her theories. It seems to me that a lot of the people using her theories have a meaningful ideological disconnect from them. They use these conclusions because (I suspect) they want sex workers, the problems of sex workers, and violence against sex workers to be well hidden from their tender sensibilities, and that agenda just doesn’t sound as good in a court room (particularly in post-Pickton Canada). This is my very long way of saying that I think the problem is less related to “feminists” and more related to anti-feminists who have discovered the social and legal value of feminist rhetoric. H8ers, as they say, gonna H8. (And I would insert a picture of a kitten here if I could).

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Foo Bar November 3, 2011 at 2:46 pm

> skip to paragraph 352 in the above link if you want to read the Canadian judicial version of a bitchslap.

I would very much like to read paragraph 352, but I have no idea which link you mean. Would you edit your post to include the link in relevant location?


suzyhooker November 3, 2011 at 8:30 pm
theswjournal November 3, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Holy smoke!

The main problem is that nobody is debating the issue. Sex workers and clients remain more or less in the closet in an attempt to hide their identities. While those who claim to work against trafficking continue with relentless attacks.

The ironic thing is that the people working against true trafficking never usually find or help their victims, who tend to be deep underground. Instead they generally focus their attention on voluntary workers.

We are all going to have to speak up if we are ever going to get any progress. Websites like this are a perfect first step.

Really, I simply do not understand what feminists have against the sale of sex?! Isn’t it possible that a woman could chose this as opposed to other forms of labor? Shouldn’t women have the choice of what to do with their bodies? I though this was what feminism was all about?


Wendy Lyon November 4, 2011 at 2:29 am

In Sweden and Norway, the number of men who admit to buying sex has greatly decreased since the law against it was brought in. That does suggest that the law has had a stigmatising effect on them (though it doesn’t prove, despite what its advocates claim about it, that the number of men who are actually buying sex has decreased). Don Kulick wrote a great piece called “Four Hundred Thousand Swedish Perverts” in which he argues that the law is part of a pattern of attempts to pathologise people who engage in “un-Swedish” behaviour; unfortunately the link I had has gone behind a paywall. You’re right anyway that the stigma is still greater for those who sell sex.

Farley’s “research”, unfortunately, does turn up regularly in abolitionist feminist propaganda and is influential in places where governance feminism plays a role in the political order. But the fact that it dovetails with right-wing views about commercial sex undoubtedly gives it legs in more conservative areas. It reminds me of when Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin got their anti-pornography law passed in Indianapolis (hardly a feminist hotbed) – all the Republicans voted for it, all the Democrats voted against.


Elle November 4, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Prostitution will always have a demand. My dood friend summed it up best; “Some men really truly deserve to know what it’s like to have sex with a beautiful woman, and they will never get that chance, unless they pay for it. So, good for them.”

Also, I love that the girl on the right is smiling, also that her leg is disappearing.


Seamus O'Derty November 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm

Here is what the Christian Fellowship League (CLF) submitted to the Ontario Supreme Court in regards to supporting keeping the activities around prostitution illegal (prostitution itself is legal in Canada, both on the buyer and seller side, what’s illegal is: having a place where you do it, communicating about it in public, or having someone live off the avails of it). But here is what the CLF thinks about it:

“…..the [prostitution] laws are a reflection of society’s views, soundly rooted in interfaith morality, which is that prostitution is an act that offends the conscience of ordinary Canadian citizens.… The Intervenors submit that prostitution is immoral. It should be stigmatized. Prostitution victimizes anyone who engages in it. This is not prudish sensibilities: it is a fundamental societal value rooted in Charter values.… Prostitution is wrong…. It offends basic concepts of decency. Many Canadians, including some members of the Intervenors … want the government… to make prostitution illegal entirely.”

I wonder what the CLF has to say about a women’s right to abortion? Yes it is a very strange and disturbing alliance that has formed between the radical prohibitionists feminists and the Christian right in advocating the Swedish model. Thankfully most Canadians are actually in support of decriminalization especially in the wake of the brutal serial killings of sex workers in Vancouver.

I’m glad that the Canadian courts thus far have ruled that these laws are unconstitutional and are actually contributing to the violence against sex workers. But the reality is that sex workers in Canada need to get their act together and organize and advocate for our rights.


Joyce Arthur November 10, 2011 at 10:03 pm

Thanks for this great article, I really enjoyed reading it.

However, I just want to correct what seems to be a significant misperception – there are many, many feminists who support sex worker rights. In fact, Canada has two explicitly feminist groups who advocate for sex workers and full decriminalization of sex work. I believe we may be the only such groups in the world:

FIRST (Decriminalize Sex Work) – /

And in Quebec: AFS – Feminist Alliance in Solidarity for Sex Worker Rights (Alliance Féministe Solidaire pour les droits des travailleuses(rs) du sexe).

We call the prohibitionist feminists “radical feminists” to distinguish them from us.
Thanks a lot.


Corinne October 4, 2014 at 8:49 pm

“My dood friend summed it up best; “Some men really truly deserve to know what it’s like to have sex with a beautiful woman, and they will never get that chance, unless they pay for it. So, good for them.”

This is a nightmare. Men do not “deserve” anything regarding other people’s bodies. Spreading this message of make entitlement is exactly the issue women have with prostitution. Fuck you and your MRA agenda.


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