Much like in Canada, the debate between prohibition and regulation is lacking
Niko Bell, Staff Contributor
When I was asked to write about prostitution for the sex and love issue, at first I thought I would have nothing to say. We all know that it is illegal or practically illegal in much of the world, but that it exists virtually everywhere. We know that sex workers are among the most marginalized of people, and that they suffer abuse, theft, exploitation, disease and legal punishment. We all know this. What more is there to say?
I had the good fortune, however, to have a conversation about sex work recently with my friend Xiaolan, who is a lawyer here in China.
When dealing with a social phenomenon, she says, you have to weigh the benefits and costs as they affect society, not just individuals. If something is altogether positive for the community, it should be permitted. If it is harmful, it should be prevented.
Some of her colleagues, she says, find prostitution distasteful, but perceive it as the lesser of two evils. Without prostitutes, where would the many excess poor unmarried men in China go for sex? Without an outlet, would they not be led to desperation, rape and violence?
Xiaolan disagrees. The fact is, she says, that Chinese prostitution is getting more and more expensive. The typical sex worker is no longer working the street selling to migrant workers, but a bar hostess or worker in a high-end hotel. The men being served, she says, are not poor “excess” men, but wealthy married ones. There is no great “social service” being done.
Besides, Xiaolan points out, what good would legalizing prostitution really do? Would a sex worker’s society, friends or family accept her any more just because the police do? Even those pushing for legalization and regulation discuss sex workers as a problem to be contained, rather than people who deserve respect.
No, she argues, the social stigma is not something any law can fight. The best thing we can do is keep as many women from the profession as possible.
Xiaolan’s position is a perfect example of one way of creating policy: as the embodiment of moral principles. If something is ‘bad,’ by this logic, it should be illegal. If it is ‘good,’ it should be legal.
This view has a major shortcoming: the intention behind a law is no guarantee of the result. We must start making decisions based on what will happen, not just on what some of us wish would happen.
We also have to remember, however, that the knife cuts both ways. It is easy to jump from the harm of illegality to the conclusion that full legalization and regulation would be positive. But if sex workers were available in legal, state-regulated, STI-free brothels, would consumers really go there? Would licensed workers be able to compete with an already established untaxed black market? What about those who could not fit into a legalized system because of age or HIV status?
Would we be doing sex workers any favours by pushing them into the open in a society that still deeply stigmatizes them? Do we really think sex workers in Canada, let alone China, would start “coming out” in droves, just because their trade were legal?
Criminalization, whether outright or not, does little good. One has only to look at the profusion of prostitution in China contrasted with harsh legal penalties to see what little use prohibition is.
Regulation and institutionalization are not real answers either, at least not for now. We should first look at what policies will keep sex workers safe, even in the shadows.
That means decriminalization of sex work and the activities surrounding it, giving sex workers the ability to hire bodyguards, screen clients, and most importantly, appeal to the law in cases of violence and mistreatment.
Here in China, it is estimated that 8 per cent of GDP goes towards sex services. Therein lies the real problem. If so much money is being paid out to prostitutes, why will nobody stand up for them? There is little doubt that powerful, influential men are using prostitutes in private and then decrying immorality in public. The hypocrisy is what hurts the most. As long as prostitution is a matter of public morality, however, public figures will be barred from protecting sex workers.