Friday, October 3, 1997

Mark Tonner
Out of the Blue

Mark Tonner, Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue

With right laws, prostitution could be gone

Tired as it is, politically correct rhetoric continues to be hailed as revolutionary. Last week, Simon Fraser University's Dr. John Lowman received the Sterling award for excellence in controversy, as a result of communicating "unorthodox" views on prostitution. Attending the ceremony, I was struck by how slowly perceptions of orthodoxy change.

Lowman's views on the business of sex has been billed as controversial, but were for the most part anything but. I've heard little outside of cries for harm-reduction approaches to prostitution in years, so much that I wonder how those voicing such opinions are able to find anyone with energy left to disagree with them.

The message centred on this basic view: That selling sex is not a moral wrong, and that, even if it were, the state must avoid legislating morality. Canada's anti-soliciting laws are blamed for causing a veritable slaughter of streetwalkers. Driving prostitutes into secluded areas, the laws supposedly set them up for violence and provided unwitting validation to those looking for excuses to attack them.

It's no secret that prostitution is legal in Canada. There are peripheral rules to prevent the deal being closed in public and to keep children and pimps out of the business, but the act itself isn't forbidden.

Calls for criminalization are usually met with a barrage of cliches. "It's always been here" is a hopelessly weak reason to endorse social wrongs -- imagine such defeatism applied to theft, or robbery!

"You'll never get rid of it, might as well tax it" is particularly exasperating -- guilt taxes equate to governmental racketeering, and prostitution is not unbeatable.

If the right laws were enacted, Vancouver police could have it cleared from city streets in a week. Yes, yes -- it would go underground, but proper resolve could make any hidden trade in sex a short-lived problem.

Those mocking legislated morality usually push their own moral vision in the same breath. If sex is merely friction, and prostitution a morally neutral act, why do the enlightened ones want children kept out of the game? What, in such a karma-free endeavor, must they be shielded from?

"Anyone answering "the danger of the game as police force it to be played" might try envisioning youngsters working in the safety of a licensed brothel.

I make the point sarcastically, but according to some of the cast-adrift minds out there -- prostitution should be presented to children as a healthy career choice! I've been fielding e-mail from a fellow signing on as Andrew Sorfleet who claims association with the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver, from which I quote:

"'I myself will rejoice the day that school counsellors present sex work as a legitimate career choice as, say policing.'"

Now that's controversial! I asked Dr. Lowman if he considered prostitution morally reprehensible, and he hopped aboard with a quick "no."

I was at odds with much of what he said, but Lowman did utter a gem or two. Banning prostitution, he quipped, would be the ultimate in misogyny, because it would empower the state to require that women give sex away for free!

I was caught up in the applause, until I considered how manipulative such cleverness is. Sex, paid or otherwise, is optional behavior, and prostituting oneself, or frequenting prostitutes, is a matter of choice. There may be compelling motivators -- poverty, addiction, self-esteem damage or simple libido -- but prohibiting these wretched exchanges need not be a fool's errand.

I say: Bring on the social supports, provide options to the addicted, dysfunctional and poor, and change the law to let police have a go at this.

But for heaven's sake, before you storm headquarters, read the wording below. My thoughts on prostitution are not universally echoed by my peers.

Const. Mark Tonner is a Vancouver police officer. The opinions and statements contained in this column are those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Vancouver police department or the police board. Tonner may be contacted at the Province, or by e-mail at

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Created: October 3, 1997
Last modified: June 17, 1999

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