EDITORIAL: Survival on the streets

Street prostitutes.

Every city has them. Every neighbourhood wants to be rid of them. Governments seem unsure as to what to do about them.

And there is a deeper, darker commonality between all of them.

As The Leader’s in-depth investigative series has revealed, street prostitution is not so much about immoral choices – it is about survival.

It’s about women who sell themselves to buy food, pay rent, and more often than not, feed a drug habit.

Like addiction, prostitution is hardly ever a matter of simple ‘choice.’

The street sex trade is not glamorous or exciting. It’s gritty, and gut-wrenching and sad. It’s not as lucrative as many would believe. Most street hookers make just enough to get by.

Having law enforcement herd them from one city block to another doesn’t make them disappear.

Condemning them for lack of character won’t stop the sex trade.

Neither will arrests, fines or jail terms. Laws don’t mean much to prostitutes who are dope-sick, desperate and drained of self-esteem.

As long as there are men willing to pay for sex, there will be hookers providing the service.

The standard and much debated solutions range from law enforcement crackdowns (ineffective), to the creation of red light districts (optically undesirable), to legalizing the sex trade and taxing it (morally questionable).

Other than the first option, most governments are reluctant in the extreme to take any measures which would be seen as openly acknowledging or accepting the world’s oldest profession.

And by doing so, society turns a blind eye to the plight of the women in the trade.

A different approach was taken by Sweden in 1999.

The Scandinavian country formerly famous for its tolerant attitudes decided to crack down on prostitution by going after johns – the men buying the sex.

It decided to treat prostitutes as victims by making buying sex illegal, not selling it.

Violators of the law face up to six months in prison.

Ever since Sweden adopted a law in 1999 that criminalized the purchase, but not the sale, of sexual services, street prostitution in Stockholm has dropped by more than two-thirds.

Yet, like virtually any piece of legislation, it is not a panacea.

Critics charge that the legislation has simply pushed prostitution further into the shadows and made life worse for the women.

If there is no appetite for that kind of radical surgery on the existing criminal code laws, or the effect it might have, the most compassionate and effective mitigating measure is to do what a Surrey Women’s Centre study suggests – create and expand outreach programs that help women survive the streets.

If the objective is to have these desperate individuals leave “the life,” they must be given something to go to. That includes drop-in centres, counselling, substance abuse treatment programs, training and practical help that provides a realistic prospect of getting off the streets.

The reality is, at present we collectively do more pointing of fingers than extending of hands.

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