When debating sex work there are usually one of two positions that can be taken. On the one hand, it can be argued that prostitution is a form of sexual exploitation, and should be curtailed at any cost. On the other, one could hold the position that sex work is work like any other and should be legalized and protected like any other trade. Below I offer a brief history of the “prostitution debates” and examine the question from the perspective of vulnerability ethics.
My own position is that “it’s complicated”, and when considering the question one has to take seriously the agency of individuals. I think what is at issue in this debate is not whether or not exchanging sex for money is immoral, but whether the agents who make such decisions can do so with integrity. I.e., choose that path not simply out of coercion but with some sense of committing to the decision with little to no regrets.
Sex work is contested terrain, and the individuals who partake in this form of labour have historically been subject to regulation. This regulation has come from both general society as well as the government, and the debate over whether the trade should be made illegal wages on. In December of 2013 the Supreme Court of Canada struck down sections 210 (“keeping a bawdy-house”), 212(1)(j) (“living on the avails of prostitution”), and 213(1)(c) (communicating for the purpose of soliciting) of the Criminal Code as an infringement on prostitutes’ Charter rights, giving the government one year to respond (Canada [Attorney General] v. Butler 2013). The Conservatives have, and Bill C-36 passed into law on December 6th as the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (Masa 2014). The Bill has been characterized as “victim-centered” by Justice Minister Peter Mackay because it is not directed at prostitutes per se, but criminalizes not only those who pay for sex and inadvertently benefit from its sale, but also advertisers and people who try to solicit women into the profession (“Controversial Bill Passed”). The pre-amble to the Bill cites government concerns over “exploitation”, “social harm”, “human dignity” and prostitution’s “disproportionate impact on women and children” as its raison d’être (Bill C-36, 2014).
The bigger questions surrounding the prostitution law concern its efficacy: if harm reduction is the ultimate goal of the Canadian government, is criminalization the way to go? Whether the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act is capable of combatting the many vulnerabilities that sex workers deal with on a day-to-day basis is an empirical question that is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper. I am concerned with a much smaller project, and am interested in the law’s underlying philosophy: does its “victim-centered” approach give due recognition to the autonomy and self-determination of the individual in question? In their introduction to vulnerability ethics, Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers and Susan Dodds state a key concern of the field to be paternalistic responses to harm that overlook the agencies of individuals in question (2). Although the state may sometimes be in the best position (and as a result have a moral obligation) to address the vulnerabilities of a given population, it must do so in a way that encourages the development of autonomy (9). This perspective rejects the liberal subject in favour of a relational one, and places emphasis on the social development of the self. In this paper I will be proposing that an agent who is integral to the prostitution debate – she who chooses tragically but with integrity – cannot be understood as possessing full autonomy on the relational framework, because within this realm of vulnerability ethics she can only exist as a morally damaged agent with adaptive preferences.
Prostitution and sex work embody some of the main concerns of vulnerability ethics, especially when it comes to pathogenic harm and its impact on the relational subject. In Being Heard: The Experiences of Young Women in Prostitution, women who participated in the sex trade before the age of eighteen were asked to share some of the factors that led them to the field (2003). Because its focus is on child and youth prostitution, the text frames women’s participation in the trade as one of “exploitation” rather than sex work (16). Depending on the statistics, youth in Canada are said to start prostituting at an average age of 14 or 15 (ibid. 17). Kelly Gorkoff and Jane Runner cite abuse in the family coupled with little support from social services and foster care to be the main reasons why children run away from home and end up on the streets. With little knowledge of how to access welfare and homelessness barring them from obtaining a job (due to not having a fixed address), street kids taxed with survival are sometimes faced with little choice but to prostitute themselves (20). “Larger socio-economic issues” (21), which include the status of women and girls in a patriarchal society, were also noted as contributing factors leading to the demand for young prostitutes. “The Girl Child Project” was the initiative that spawned the creation of the book Being Heard, which includes the interviews of 44 women (25 Aboriginal and 19 white) from the Prairie provinces who started out in the sex trade before the age of eighteen. Half of them still work in the field (22 – 25), and because none of the women’s names were given I refer to them indirectly.
Leslie Tutty and Kendra Nixon cite “survival sex” (i.e. selling sex in order to secure food, shelter, and clothing) as one of the main reasons why the women entered into prostitution at a young age (33; 36), but also mention that most of the Aboriginal women cited the glamorous lifestyle as being a contributing factor (34 – 35). In some cases they were coerced by pimps, but more often than not it was their friends or boyfriends who encouraged them to start (31 – 32). Drugs and alcohol were often used to get the women through the experience (and cope with it after), and some stated that they could not prostitute sober (56) due to an overwhelming fear of harm (76). One woman described her relationship to drugs as “being high means up tall, not whore and small.” (56) Addictions thus commonly formed part of the destructive cycle that kept women going back to the trade, no matter its personal cost. In their discussions of violence, Nixon and Tutty state that “[a]lmost all of the women that were interviewed reported extreme violence when involved in prostitution. Many had friends or acquaintances that had been murdered while prostituting.” (72) Although the fear of going on “bad dates” was pervasive, abuse did not come from only customers but pimps and intimate partners as well (75). Some of the women interviewed also recounted self-inflicted harms – cutting and attempted suicide were all used to help stop the pain (79). About the effects of sex work on the women’s psyche, Pamela Downe and Ashley-Mika state researchers “to have argued that young women who are sexually exploited through prostitution tend to have a ‘poorly experienced and underdeveloped sense of personal power… a deep feeling of being inconsequential to anyone or anything.'” (47) In Downe’s discussion of prostitution and health she outlines the mental toll that the trade took on many of the women interviewed: “I’m a nut”, “I kind of fell apart” and experienced a “general wear and tear of… the spirit” (95). Downe notes that despite the difficulties faced, when presented with opportunities to express agency (for example, with the help of social services) and advocate on their own behalf, the women’s self-esteem often soared (96 – 97).
There is a second agent that also fits nicely into Mackenzie’s taxonomy: one whose inherent dispositions and situational vulnerabilities make him more resilient than others in the face of adversity (39 – 40). River Redwood has never done “hard” drugs (53) and experiences the violence of a “bad date” every once in a while (though he has learned to better anticipate and so avoid them) (52), and does not frame his involvement in the sex trade only in these terms (46). He has tried out other occupations but finds the life of a porn star and director to be much more fulfilling than working a “straight” job. The narrators in Selling Sex who perceive violence as no more than an occupational hazard, potentially mitigated if sex work were decriminalized, display resilience in the face of pathogenic harm. The situational vulnerabilities encountered by sex workers such as Victoria Love are also different from those experienced by – for example – an Aboriginal street kid who engages in needs-based prostitution. Love cites her place in the “…hierarchy of the sex industry” (64) as this: “[b]ecause of my race and class positioning, I create a situation for clients to experience themselves as bourgeois subjects” (64). Her whiteness and “educated-middle-classedness” – as well as the fact that she is an independent escort – all work in her favour to allow for her to benefit from the glamorous life that her clientele afford her (62).
T. M. G.
Bill C-36: An Act to amend the Criminal Code in response to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Attorney General of Canada v. Bedford and to make consequential amendments to other Acts. 41st Parl., 2nd Sess. [Ottawa]: Library of Parliament, 2014.
Parliament of Canada. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72,  3 S.C.R. 1101.
“Controversial Bill Passed.” Toronto Sun, Canoe Sun Media. 06 Oct. 2014. Web. 1 Nov. 2014.
Gorkoff, Kelly, and Jane Runner, eds. Being Heard: The Experiences of Young Women in Prostitution. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2003.
Mackenzie, Catriona, Wendy Rogers and Susan Dodds. “Introduction: What Is Vulnerability and Why Does It Matter for Moral Theory?” Vulnerability: New Essays in Ethics and Feminist Philosophy. Eds. Catriona Mackenzie, Wendy Rogers and Susan Dodds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. 1 – 32.
Masa, Susana. “Prostitution Law Comes Into Force on Day of Action on Violence Against Women.” CBC News: Politics. CBC, 2014. 06 Dec. 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2014.
“Technical Paper: Bill C-36, Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act“. Department of Justice. Government of Canada, nd. 07 Dec. 2014.