Selling Sex: Abolition vs Regulation

Many people were introduced to the concept of Human Trafficking via the movie Taken where Bryan Mills’ (played by Liam Neeson) daughter is kidnapped and groomed for prostitution and he has to save her by killing everyone who has an accent.

Good Luck

Around the same time I watched the movie Taken I read a book called Invisible Chains by Benjamin Perrin. The book is a well documented account of Perrin’s investigation into human trafficking in Canada, an investigation that began internationally but ended up in his own backyard when he was “shocked to learn of a case of human trafficking in his hometown.” The book delves into several specific cases, and by specific, I mean horrific: “a 14-year-old from Ontario sold for sex on Craigslist; young women from the war-torn Congo and Colombia trafficked to brothels and massage parlours in Canada; a 21-year-old from Alberta who went missing in Las Vegas in 2006.”

Perrin also presents a prostitution Abolition Model which has been implemented in several Nordic countries, namely Sweden, Iceland and NorwayFor those who haven’t heard of it, the Nordic Model advocates a decriminalization of prostitution. Rather than charging sex workers for their activities, the “Johns” or individuals who purchase sex are charged and often sent to a type of sensitivity school. The purchase of sex is seen as an act of abuse against prostitutes, many of whom are trafficked into the industry or who fall into it after years of abuse.  

After reading the stories and hearing about the Nordic model I felt compelled to share what I had learned. So I called up my close friend, Chelsea, who was living in Vancouver and attending the Salvation Army War College at the time. After chatting about it the two of us decided to coordinate an Evening of Awareness in our hometown. Chelsea found an amazing speaker who agreed to share her story at our event and I contacted the makers of the video below and they allowed us to use it for a public viewing. We printed off letters for our MP and homemade petitions. We thought we had everything prepared.

In many ways it was far more successful than we even dared to dream it would be, but in other ways the memory of it still makes me wince. You can read the follow-up I wrote after our event.  For one, I would warn anyone who organizes a public event not to throw around the name of a well known NGO without first consulting them, especially at an event promoting a political perspective. Also, there is a specific way of addressing your petition to the government. If it is not worded correctly it will be returned to you until you have followed their requirements. The other thing I would warn about is whenever you decide to share your opinion on something in a public way, be aware that you will need to be prepared to defend that opinion to absolutely anyone. Before we held that event I had no idea that there is a huge debate over the issue of Nordic Law. In fact the majority of what I had read while researching made the issue seem very simple. There were people being victimized and we needed to do something about it. This form of legislation would help them. Period.

Shortly after the event I ended up in a Women’s Studies/Criminology class which addressed the problems with prostitution here in Canada, but from an entirely different perspective. My teacher was herself a strong supporter of Sex Workers’ Rights and though she applauded our attempt to raise awareness for the issue, she disagreed entirely with the Nordic approach. Part of her decision to support regulation of the sex trade, a model which was implemented in New Zealand, came from her communication with women in the sex trade, the majority of whom protest the Nordic model:

Now it actually says… no prostitution is prostitution out of free will. It means that everybody is a victim. If you scream and shout that you’re not a victim you are suffering from a false consciousness. And if you try to convince them that you’re not even suffering from a false consciousness, they will say: ‘Well you’re not representative.'” – Pye Jacobsson, Swedish sex worker and activist

In contrast to the Nordic model, countries with a regulated sex trade decriminalize both the sale and purchase of sex. Some countries who have regulated the sex industry include Germany, where brothels are registered businesses and prostitutes pay income tax, and Mexico, where sex workers must be registered, of age, and carry a health card.

Discovering the polarization between abolitionists and those who support regulation/legalization forced me to realize that the issue I once thought was so simple is in fact far more complex than it once seemed. While I still support implementing the Nordic Model here in Canada, for reasons which I hope to explore further in a future post, I cannot dismiss the arguments behind the regulation model. And many of those arguments have challenged me to consider my intentions behind fighting human trafficking. A friend recently sent me an essay that addresses the sudden wave of interest in Human trafficking. It was an article I found personally convicting:

“How is it that this evil [human trafficking], known to all sociologists, should now be made such an important issue? To assume that the recent investigation … has discovered anything new, is, to say the least, very foolish. Prostitution has been, and is, a widespread evil, yet mankind goes on its business, perfectly indifferent to the sufferings and distress of the victims of prostitution…What is really the cause of the trade in women?… Exploitation, of course; the merciless Moloch of capitalism that fattens on underpaid labor, thus driving thousands of women and girls into prostitution… Naturally our reformers say nothing about this cause. They know it well enough, but it doesn’t pay to say anything about it. It is much more profitable to play the Pharisee, to pretend an outraged morality, than to go to the bottom of things.”

The root of the battle between Abolition and Regulation is a moral belief. Supporters of regulation argue that until sex workers are recognized as regular employees and the sex trade considered an industry no different from any other, violence against sex workers will never come to an end.

Abolitionists, meanwhile, feel that a society where individuals, particularly women, are paid for their sexual acts breeds a culture where women are viewed as objects and individuals are reduced to nothing more than a body.

So where do we go from here? Many individuals on both sides are working hard to protect sex workers from violence, but there seems to be constant debate  regarding what sort of political changes are required to provide that protection. Is it possible to come to a political compromise between abolition and regulation? Are abolitionists willing to protect sex trade workers, even if they live in a way that does not align with our personal moral code? And are regulationists willing to admit that supporting sex work as a career may mean an increase in human trafficking and an increased victimization of women in poverty? Or does any political action necessitate aligning yourself with one group or the other?

9 responses to “Selling Sex: Abolition vs Regulation

  1. Sexual intercourse is not a “commodity”, so why do all you morons out there “keep” thinking its something that can be sold and kept? How can you assume that humans can be supposedly “trafficked”? Humans cannot be trafficked. Thats the wrong application of this word. Its rude and disrespectful to call compliments, “sexual” “hassling” and to have the audacity to call it a crime. Thats blasphemous.

  2. Sexual intercourse is not “work” and its not a trade, doing a massage is. But not having an ulterior motive to get mere paper for money to have sexual intercourse with strange men they dont know? Theres no such thing as “sex” “work”.

  3. The reason why this satanic harlotry exists is because all humans love Belial. And if everyone did not they would not give 160 dollars for a massage and sexual intercourse to strange ladies they dont even know. If men and women loved one another alot more than they do they wouldnt try to attempt to “price” sexual intercourse which is evil.

  4. I’m kicking myself for not reading this article earlier. I really enjoyed your breakdown of the regulation vs. abolition argument, something that I personally have given a lot of thought to and still feel very conflicted about. Each side has so many pros and cons.

    I think it is very fair to say that until we can find a way to eliminate the very root causes of prostitution/trafficking (Capitalism induced poverty, etc.) this is a problem we will continue to struggle with. Whether we regulate it or (attempt to) abolish it until we back up a little and ask why it’s able to happen in the first place we won’t get very far.

    In your post you most discussed the women and the factors leading to them ending up in trafficking situations. Most approaches to trafficking are focused almost solely on the supply side of things and how to reduce the number of prostituted women. I would love to hear more about the demand side and how to reduce the number of John’s. It is a business, as long as there is demand there will be supply.

    Also, I attended The Salvation Army War College’s summer program, Battle School, when I was a teenager, so I think it’s super awesome you worked with them.

    • Hey Chris, sorry I didn’t respond to this earlier. That’s cool to hear you attended War College, I guess you would know first hand what my friend’s experience there was like. As for finding information on the demand side, a lot of what I learned about addressing demand has been by using the Nordic Model, something that is pretty controversial. They discuss it a lot in the documentary I included above, and Perrin also get’s into it a lot in his book if you are interested.

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