An affliction, not a profession
Barbara Kay, National Post · Aug. 3, 2011 | Last Updated: Aug. 3, 2011 5:24 AM ET
On Aug. 14 in Vancouver, a bonfire will be lit to launch the Ignite The Road to Justice Mission Tour 2011. The purpose of the tour, which will visit every major city in Canada, is to educate Canadians about the horrors of human trafficking, an evil that is growing in this country under our noses, but gets very little media exposure. Leading the tour will be Tara Teng, Miss Canada 2011, for whom the crusade against trafficking is a personal passion, and Tania Fiolleau, a former prostitute turned fierce abolitionist.
Prostitution is one of those social toxins that never goes away, but isn't much discussed in the public forum unless an incident - a series of prostitute murders, say, or a legal judgment that tests public attitudes - provokes a round of debate.
We're in the midst of such a debate now, sparked by an Ontario ruling last September seeking to overturn laws against owning brothels and receiving primary income from the sale of sex. The case is working its way through the higher courts.
Social attitudes to prostitution cohere around two distinct views of human nature and morality.
On the socially conservative side are those who see sexuality in general through a moral lens. They regard prostitution as an immoral occupation, degrading to the woman practising it and harmful to society as a whole in well-documented ways. They see prostitutes as victims as well as sinners - as people who need rescue from a bad decision, notoriously difficult to reverse, made out of desperation, ignorance or coercion. That's the position fuelling this tour.
On the liberal and libertarian side, adult sexuality and morality must never be conflated. Prostitutes should be called "sex workers," a neutral term, who should be permitted, or even empowered, to practice their chosen trade free of any social stigma. Liberals and libertarians regard prostitution as a fact of social life, a profession like any other, and see no need for anything other than regulation to curtail its attendant risks. That's the position fuelling most media commentary in the West.
But prostitution is not like other professions. Most women cannot be said to "choose" a line of work they have been forced into, and find so disgusting, most of them need drugs to numb their misery (assuming they weren't addicts beforehand). Those championing the rights of "sex workers" base their arguments on theory, and the word of a small minority of confident, articulate, happy or heartof-gold hookers who know how to manipulate credulous elites. They would get a very different story from Tania Fiolleau, as I did in a recent telephone interview.
Tania got into prostitution when an acrimonious custody battle over her two sons left her penniless and desperate. She eventually ran several brothels, serving as madam to 500 prostitutes. On the outside she seemed to have it all: good looks, money and power, but inside "I was the walking dead," and "a shell of a woman."
Her custody case went all the way to the Supreme Court. She promised God that if she got her kids back, she would devote her life to saving women from prostitution. She won her case and kept her promise. Tania opened an aesthetics salon and her former "girls" came to work for her - at least those who managed to escape the life. Then she wrote a book, Souled Out, describing her eventful life, now in its second edition. A Hollywood movie is in the works.
Tania pours scorn on the liberal image of the prostitute as a working gal like any other. Of the hundreds of girls that worked for her, she says, "not a single one ever said that she did not regret it." She says many of her former workers are homeless or hopelessly drug addicted; some have been murdered or committed suicide.
It is no good saying that prostitution is the oldest profession and therefore it must be accommodated. Disease and poverty have always been with us, too, but we have not given up the war on those afflictions, however unrealistic our chances of completely eradicating them. Media nonjudgmentalism and benevolence help the approximately 10% "high-track" prostitutes and escorts for whom the right to run brothels and advertise makes work easier, but does nothing - or even hurts - the most vulnerable girls and women.
To find out more about sex trafficking in Canada, read the recently published Invisible Chains, by University of British Columbia law school academic Benjamin Perrin. To help fund Tania Fiolleau and Tara Teng's modest needs for their tour, visit ignitetheroadtojustice.com.