As we’ve toured with our film Red Light Green Light this past year, we’ve met many people who are passionate about justice. Prostitution has been framed primarily as an issue of injustice, and rightly so. It preys on vulnerability and disproportionately targets those on the margins. The new prostitution law, which prohibits the purchase of sex while decriminalizing those who sell it (as they are usually victims of force or circumstance), seeks to address the demand side of the equation, recognizing that most often, prostitution is an unequal transaction in which the person paying has more power than the person providing a sexual service.
If we are serious about addressing systemic injustice, reducing demand for paid sex is key. For this reason, I support the new prostitution law. However, to bring about the intended goal of the law – which is protecting the vulnerable and promoting equality – our passion for justice must extend beyond the new law and filter down to the issues within our society that many would prefer to ignore, issues that are uncomfortable because they are difficult and would require some sacrifice to address.
Somewhere on our journey across the U.S. this past month, I heard someone use the word “takers.” I marvelled at how one little word could carry with it such a host of assumptions, opinions, and political loyalties. Like the belief that people on welfare are draining the system, that the poor are manipulating legal loopholes for their own benefit, that minimum wage workers should worship at the feet of “job creators” (another linguistic marvel that carries notable weight).
Calling the poor and the working poor “takers” is not entirely untrue. Of course there are people who take advantage of the system. The irony is that those who point the finger assume that they themselves are not.
Herein lies the paradox. The rich (not all of them, but many) often complain that the poor are lazy, while they themselves try to find ways to ‘put their money and other people to work for them’ so they can avoid being wage slaves. The rich often complain that the poor are taking advantage of loopholes for their own benefit, while they themselves do the same except with massive repercussions (U.S. banking crisis, anyone?). The rich often pat themselves on the back for creating jobs, but grind out their workers with minimum wage pay and manipulate schedules so that workers who should receive the perks of full time miss the mark by a day or two – allowing their labour to be used with as little cost to the employer as possible. The rich accuse the poor for not contributing to society, while they themselves lobby to pay little or no taxes in a community, threatening to take their business elsewhere.
So while calling the poor and the working poor “takers” is not entirely untrue, calling the rich “takers” is not entirely untrue either. At the end of the day, we are all takers, we are all greedy, and broken, and selfish. The difference is that the poor cannot afford to pay top-notch lawyers to advocate on their behalf. The difference is that between taking public transit and working three jobs, the poor don’t have time to lobby the government. The difference is that while the rich get richer, the poor are stuck in a cycle of poverty.
According to StatsCan, wealth inequality is growing in Canada. The top 10 per cent of Canadians have seen their median net worth grow by 42 per cent since 2005 to $2.1 million in 2012, while the bottom 10 per cent of Canadians saw their median net worth shrink by 150 per cent. The Broadbent Institute points out that when we look at this broad picture of wealth using new Statistics Canada data, the report shows “deep and persistent inequality.” Rick Smith, the executive director of the institute says in this article:
“Contrary to rosy reports of rising net worth and a post-recession recovery, these new numbers sound the alarm on Canada’s wealth inequality problem.”
When I was in my early teens, I played an interesting game in class one day. There was a huge bin of jelly beans in the middle of the room. We were separated into groups of 4 or 5, and each group received a set of tools. Group members had to go up one by one and use these tools to scoop as many jelly beans as possible, then bring them back to the the group’s empty bucket. The group with the most jelly beans in their bucket when the whistle blew won the game and received a prize.
But before the game even started, people started to revolt. Some groups had been given many useful tools, consisting of shovels and bowls and scoops. Other groups had only been given a couple teaspoons or a small glass. One group was given only a straw, and they had to suck on one end of the straw to grab each jelly bean one at a time, gingerly walking it back to the group’s bucket before they ran out of breath.
Though all the groups worked equally hard, the first group – who had the best tools – won the game. When the rest of us started complaining, the teacher pointed out that this game was not actually about jelly beans at all, but a demonstration of the distribution of wealth. While some would like to think that we are all given the same tools in life, all you have to do is listen to people’s life stories to realize that is not the case.
So what does this have to so with the issue of prostitution? Poverty is a key push factor for many of those who end up in the sex industry, and the majority (not all, but the majority) of those in prostitution are in it purely for reasons of economic necessity. Our goal should not be to make prostitution as easy as possible so that impoverished people have an “option” for work. This is an insult to the poor. Our goal should be to level the economic playing field so that people can break out of the cycle of poverty and not depend on the goodwill of “non-violent clients” to put food on the table.
If you are a business owner, consider giving your employees benefits and better wages, even if it means slightly less profit. Be open to hiring someone with no previous experience who needs help building up their resume. If you are a landlord, charge less rent (no one says you have to charge the market average). If you have a well-paying job, consider donating one, ten or fifty per cent to social programs and charities (Jay and I are personally working toward giving away 90% of our income). These things are all possible, but it requires sacrifice. It requires having less stuff. It requires being less greedy.
Our government of course is not off the hook on this one, as the laws they make and enforce shape the system in which we all work, live, and do business. I find it somewhat ironic that many of those who want to end prostitution simultaneously support the current government’s pro-big business initiatives which end up increasing wealth inequality…and creates an environment where the most vulnerable have to turn to prostitution because of lack of other opportunities.
Reducing demand for paid sex is key when dealing with the issue of sexual exploitation, and Canada’s new prostitution law is a strong step forward if we are serious about prevention. Those who refuse to acknowledge this as a critical piece are woefully misguided. But let’s remember to look at the issue of prostitution in its wholeness, and take steps to reduce the economic vulnerability that pushes people to do desperate things. Demand reduction, coupled with real opportunities for those who would otherwise consider prostitution, gets at the root and makes sustainable prevention possible.
But it will take sacrifice, so let’s conspire together and figure out ways to all do our part.
**This is part one of my series, Ensuring the Success of Canada’s Prostitution Law. More posts coming soon.