We are a group of lesbians in Vancouver who have been active in the women’s movement. We have noticed the growing trend to support legalization or full decriminalization of prostitution amongst many people concerned for the safety and well-being of prostituted women and men. While we support the decriminalization of prostituted people, we believe this must be done in the context of prostitution abolition, including the continued criminalization of buyers, sellers, procurers and traffickers. We are writing this letter to the community of lesbians and queer women in which we live because we believe lesbians and queer women have an interest in supporting women’s sexual autonomy. Legalizing prostitution is not true solidarity with prostituted women or with the cause of women’s sexual autonomy. Real solidarity with prostituted women is in the fight for abolition of prostitution and for greater sexual choice for all women. Here's why:
1. Prostitution enforces compulsory heterosexuality by teaching men that they have the right to access women’s bodies on their terms and to expect prostitution-like behaviour from other women. Lesbianism, by contrast, can create more sexual autonomy for women by providing an alternative for some women that is also an example to society of sexuality that is not male-controlled.
2. Prostitution is connected to other forms of coercive sexuality in that johns and pimps use their power in the form of money, male sexual privilege and/or violence to choose the nature of the sexual encounter – much as men do in rape, battery and incest. Many prostituted women have survived rape, battery and incest prior to entering prostitution.
3. Sexual autonomy for women also requires economic autonomy – prostitution provides neither.
In prostitution, a man has to pay only once to get what he wants, but a woman has to sell many times a day to get what she needs or to meet the expectations of her pimp or the brothel manager. Outside of prostitution, the condition of women’s work is already often menial, insecure and leaves many women dependent on men and therefore vulnerable to men’s violence, especially women who are racialized, indigenous and/or poor. To use women’s poverty as a reason to legalize prostitution is cynical and hopeless. Real economic equality would not require that women marry, accept sexual harassment, be relegated to low-paid, unsatisfying work or prostitute.
4. The rights of gay men must not trump the rights of women. Some “feminists,” such as those at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, have described the bawdy house laws as harmful because “these same prostitution laws have been used in particular against marginalized communities,” meaning men who owned, operated and patronized gay bars such as Truxx and K.O.X. in Montreal. As lesbians/queer women, we do not want gay/queer men persecuted, but even more than that, we want gay/queer men to stand up for women’s rights. We will not give over the right of women to genuine sexual autonomy because decriminalizing prostitution laws will permit more freedom to some gay/queer men to engage in buying and selling other men. Women’s equality is a right. Some gay/queer men’s prostitution behaviour is not.
5. The law is rarely used to protect women now, and neither will it be if prostitution is legalized or decriminalized. The police and criminal justice system are likely to treat prostituted women in the situation of legalized prostitution in the same way they treat raped, battered, and prostituted women now: providing little enforcement of rape and assault laws, conducting minimal investigations, and judging next to no convictions against the men committing the violence. Over the last five years in Vancouver, prostitution has been effectively decriminalized - the police have made very few arrests. During this period, we have still seen horrific violence, including many women still missing, the case of Bakker who tortured women and the death of Nicole Parisienne in a brothel apartment in Kitsilano. Lesbians and queer women expect to be able to call on the law to protect us from homophobic and sexist harassment. We should demand the same for women in prostitution, namely that the law is used to stop men from sexually harassing, assaulting, buying and selling women.
6. Prostitutes and lesbians/queer women are in some senses co-outsiders to the sexual norms of society. Names like “dyke”, “slut”, “whore” and “cunt” are used interchangeably against us. But, the responsibility of lesbians and queer women to prostituted women is to demand that all women have sexual autonomy, and therefore not have to engage in prostitution.
7. In terms of choice, prostitution is the opposite of lesbianism. Lesbians and queer women want and in many ways are able to choose all kinds of things about our lives: how we dress, who we love, how we have sex. Prostituted women do not have these same kinds of choices. The choices prostitution offers women are how to be marketable, how to submit to lack of secure income, how to submit to beatings and rape, how to submit to demands for unprotected sex, and how to live with the constant fear of violence and constant surveillance and monitoring of behaviour as happens on the street and in brothels.
8. Lesbians know that sexual experience conditions sexual desire. This has been our experience of becoming lesbians and queer women. We also know that many women who have survived incest, battery, rape and prostitution have chosen to be lesbians and queer as their sexual expression. We do not want more of our friends and lovers to live with the pain and physical alienation that result from those experiences of abuse. We want all women to experience autonomy, joy and connection in their sexual experiences.
We chose to be lesbians and queer women as an expression of our love for women, our love of being women and our desire for equality. This choice has been, for us, expansive because it has given us a greater horizon of expectations and opportunities. The women’s movement as a whole seeks constantly to expand the boundaries for women’s expression and freedom. Prostitution, by contrast, is a decision made within the most limited of circumstances, namely poverty, insecurity, violence and misogyny. Prostitution can never be liberatory and should not be equated with sexual autonomy or with feminist goals.