Kate Heartfield: Do prostitutes sell themselves or a service?

The Supreme Court has given Canada a year to come up with prostitution laws that don’t put sex workers in danger. The justice department is soliciting opinions from Canadians on its website.

One of the options on the table is the Nordic model, which criminalizes clients but not sex workers. The debate over that will be mostly about how it would work in practice in Canada: Would it create the same sorts of harms, by pushing the transactions into the shadows? I suspect the answer to that is yes, at least in part.

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But the Supreme Court’s decision forces us to go deeper than that, to the level of philosophy. To define our terms. What is prostitution? Are women selling a service, or are they selling themselves, as a commodity?

Many supporters of the Nordic model, both in feminist and family-values circles, say it’s the latter. Prostitution, they say, is a commodity sale. It is inherently objectifying and exploitative, they argue. It is itself a harm, even if all the associated harms can be eliminated. A woman who believes she is freely choosing her job has to be wrong about that, they argue. She is a victim whether she knows it or not.

Conservative MP Joy Smith is one of the strongest voices on this side of the debate, who says she recognizes “prostitution as an industry that is inherently harmful to women and girls and therefore must be eliminated.” She favours the Nordic model.

If you believe that selling sex means selling women, you believe that a woman’s value equals her capacity to have sex.

Framing this as a gender-equality argument is ironic, because that same notion underpins many of the world’s most sexist ideas — including the idea, still in place in some parts of the world, that rape is a property crime.

We in Canada don’t generally talk about rape that way any more, but we still use that language when we talk about prostitution. We use phrases like “selling her body” or even “selling herself” — rather than “selling sex.” Break out “sell herself” to “sell her self” and it becomes clear just how much we have wrapped up a woman’s identity with her sexual activity.

This conflation of a physical activity with a woman’s body or even a woman’s selfhood is particular to sex. We don’t say that a hairstylist “sells her hands” or that a doctor “sells herself.”

To assume that prostitution commodifies women, we have to also think a certain way about heterosexual sex. We have to think of it as male access to a woman’s body — not as something a woman does with her body. This is the “why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free” way of seeing women’s sexuality. Again, not exactly a gender-equality argument.

There is another way of looking at sex: that a woman’s value as a human being has nothing to do with whom she chooses to have sex with or how often or what conditions she imposes on that choice. If this is our assumption, then a woman who sells sex is not selling herself. She isn’t turning herself into a commodity, and neither is anyone else. Sex is merely the service she sells.

Many sex workers are exploited and harmed. Many do need help or want options. But there are some who say they are not victims, that they wish to continue their work without fearing for their lives. For the “eliminate prostitution” argument to carry the day, there can be no exceptions. Those women who do not see themselves as victims have to be silenced in the national discussion. They have to be told they simply don’t understand. And that’s no way to respect women’s rights and equality, either.

The proponents of criminalizing the purchase of sex have very good intentions, including the worthy goal of reducing trafficking and abuse.

But if they are going to create the next era of Canada’s prostitution laws, they have to convince the rest of us not only that their model would work in practice, but that its assumptions about women and sex are morally sound.

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