News reports on the recent Supreme Court decision tossing out laws on prostitution focused on women’s inequality, but missed a fundamental fact: prostitution is also about racism.
Prostitutes in Canada may come from a diversity of backgrounds, but women of colour are disproportionately represented.
One police raid of 18 massage parlours found that more than 90% of the women working in them were Asian. Aboriginal women are also highly visible in street prostitution, despite the fact aboriginal people make up just over 4% of the Canadian population.
Our group, Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, was an intervenor in the Supreme Court case. As an equality-seeking women’s organization, we applaud the court’s recognition that women should not be punished for being prostituted, and should be cleared of criminal responsibility.
But we are also working to help Canadians understand the broader racial context of prostitution.
A quick scan through the back pages of local newspapers and online classified pages reflects the overwhelming recruitment of women of colour to the sex industry. Here, you will see the insidious ways racist stereotypes are used against Asian women in prostitution. “Exotic,” “New in Town,” and “Geisha Doll” are some common descriptions.
These stereotypes are tools used to market Asian women to men, as well as provide an expectation for what buyers might demand in the behaviour and sex acts from Asian women. These stereotypes also reinforce much broader societal attitudes and expectations of women and women of colour — prostituted or not.
Consider the portrayal of the Asian woman in popular culture — as the quiet nerd, immigrant or prostitute in mainstream media. Or the young Asian woman as innocent Flower of the Orient, or as seductive Dragon Lady so common in Hollywood. These racist ideas of Asian women are intensified by the sex industry for the sake of male entertainment and profit.
The court’s decision to suspend the judgment for a year allows Parliament an opportunity to draft new legislation. This is an open door for new legislation more consistent with the approach progressive countries are adopting, called the Nordic Model. Under this model, laws against prostitution are applied to the pimps and the buyers, but not to prostituted women.
The Nordic Model, however is not solely a legal approach. Prostitution is understood as a form of violence against women that should be abolished also by economic, social and political means.
In order for it to work, significant reforms to existing programs and social aid must be afforded to the poor and those at risk of exploitation, including women of colour. This way, we might interfere with the ability of the procurers, brothel owners and johns to drive women into the sex trade in the first place — including those subject to the additional pressures of men’s racist sexism.
Prostitution plays a part in fuelling racial inequality in Canada. As a country that aspires to be a progressive multicultural society, we must consider moving towards an end to prostitution if we are to promote freedom, safety and security of the person for all.
Sarah M. Mah is a member of the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution