Friday, April 14, 2006


It used to be a nice neighbourhood. Then the cops moved in.

Gatineau's finest have just completed a "prostitution sweep" in the Eddy Street area of what used to be Hull, across the river from Ottawa. They netted ten johns, it is reported, but "no charges were laid against prostitutes." Enlightened, one might think, even liberal. The best and the brightest on the social front have been telling us for years, after all, that prostitution is not a victimless crime, because the prostitutes themselves are victims. Their customers, on the other hand, are predators, paying predators, to be sure, but predators nonetheless. They are perpetuating a social problem, and they ought to be punished for it.

A digression: this model is fundamentally flawed. We can all agree that pimps are predators, and those of us who rank prostitution pretty low on the list of social "evils," or leave it off the list altogether, wouldn't mind a pimp round-up, but things get a little grayer when we look at prostitution itself. It's a paying transaction, shorn of love but not of desire, the consummation of the latter being remunerated at market rates, as are other consummations, offered to the consumer by the same invisible hand of the capitalist system. Certainly some prostitutes conform to the image, or at least one of the contradictory images that circulate, of a whipped and degraded soul, drugged and diseased and without hope, forced into the game because she couldn't land a good job as a secretary or burger-flipper. But others are simply businesswomen, making good money and investing it wisely.

Why do we automatically deny agency to women, assuming that, if they pursue conduct of which our moral guardians disapprove, they must be victims? But wait--this isn't precisely how our legal system operates. Indeed, prostitutes regularly find themselves before the courts, victims once again. Doubly victimized, as some might have it. Or are they victimizers? Who is the real victim, then?

Perhaps the events in Gatineau may provide us with a clue. It wasn't a matter of letting the hookers off the hook. Because there were no hookers, none to be seen. All of the elegant ladies of the evening, it seems, were undercover police officers. Every last bodacious one was a public employee doing her duty.
The johns now face fines of up to $500.

So, as our neighbourhoods quickly go downhill, invaded by throngs of attractive police officers strutting their stuff, we ordinary citizens can reflect on this: we're the victims, if victims there are. We're doubly victimized, in fact--first by the Mrs. Grundys whose Puritan notions of sex have managed to keep soliciting laws on the books even in the new millennium, and secondly by the tax collector, whose bulging coffers provide the wherewithal to pay for these evening police excursions, coming soon, perhaps, to a neighbourhood near you.

Perhaps it is comforting to know at tax time (whence these grumpy reflections originate) that those coffers are, at least to some extent, replenished through a kind of user-pay system. Once more there are victims, of course: the users get nothing in return for their money. But, as any sex-trade worker will tell you, that's the whole point.

It wasn't foolish fancy that led William Blake to say, "Prisons are built with stones of law, Brothels with bricks of religion." There is an important corollary, however, these days: prostitution is police business. In all senses, it would seem, of the word.

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