Skip to main content

Sex workers are victims

By Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson
updated 8:16 AM EST, Fri December 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Filmmakers say their work documents the harm that prostitution does
  • A Canadian court recently struck down the remaining legal curbs on prostitution
  • Authors: Don't believe it's a victimless crime; force, fraud or coercion frequently used
  • They say we need support systems for victims, ways to protect the vulnerable

Editor's note: Jane Wells, co-director of the new film "Tricked," is an Emmy-award nominated documentary filmmaker and the founder of 3 Generations, a nonprofit organization that uses film to share stories of survivors of human rights abuses. John-Keith Wasson, the film's co-director and cinematographer, directed the award-winning documentary "Surviving Hitler: A Love Story".

(CNN) -- Christmas came early this year for pimps and johns in Canada.

Last week's unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of Canada to strike down all remaining prostitution laws is not only a victory for the professional sex workers who brought their case through the legal system, it is a triumph for those who live off and enjoy the commercial sex industry. Tragically, it's a time bomb for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable and exploited women, girls and boys.

We are documentary filmmakers and our film, "Tricked", opened last week in New York City. For 3 years, we embedded with vice cops, met with the johns, pimps, girls and boys entangled in the professional sex world. We went to the dungeon of a dominatrix, filmed the partially legal model in Sweden and met sex workers advocating for legalization. We followed abolitionists, lobbyists, hobbyists, survivors, the FBI, grandmothers, gay sex workers, transvestites, drug addicts, alcoholics, college kids and PhDs. All had stories to share and a unique perspective on this complex issue.

Jane Wells
Jane Wells
John-Keith Wasson
John-Keith Wasson

By the end of our extensive investigation, focused on the United States, we shared a conclusion: the commercial sexual sale of someone's body is not empowering, does not offer gender equality and in most cases is a form of modern day slavery. The myths used by advocates of prostitution are universal.

The selling of sex is legal in Canada, but the decision ended prohibitions on operating brothels, making a living from working for a prostitute and communicating in public about prostitution. While striking down these three laws arguably protects the constitutional rights of a certain class of sex worker, it does so at the expense of another more plentiful group: those harmed by the sex industry.

Efforts to legalize prostitution are based on the outdated assumption that prostitution is a victimless crime, a view that is effectively used by the pro-legalization lobby. That's simply not true. For the majority of commercial sex workers, the sex industry is a continuum of harm that feeds on vulnerabilities and spits out damaged victims.

In the United States the FBI estimates that 85% of commercial sex workers experience some degree of force, fraud or coercion (the federal definition of sex trafficking).

France's prostitution fight
See where FBI found child prostitutes

There is no definitive evidence that legalization ends the exploitation of sex workers. According to several undercover cops we interviewed, a majority of girls have pimps in the legal brothels of Nevada. Most of the girls and women we filmed worked "legitimate" escort services for their pimps. Danielle did escort work by day and street work by night -- all her money went to her pimp. In Las Vegas, Cindy worked through licensed escort businesses but had to hand over all her earnings to a violent and controlling pimp.

Legalization could potentially cut down on violence by johns, but it cannot control the violence outside brothel walls. Another myth often cited by supporters of legalization is that there is a health care benefit, but recent statistics from Germany, where prostitution is legal, show that less than one tenth of 1% of sex workers actually use the health insurance system.

Throughout the sex industry, we found a strong dominance of pimp culture. Where pimps operate, most take 100% of the money earned by the sex workers. For them, there's a strong financial incentive to continue business as usual. Would legalization change this truth or eliminate pimps?

Commercial sex workers face violence, whether in brothels or at "home" with a pimp. According to one study, working in prostitution is 51 times more violent than the second-most violent profession for women (working in a liquor store). Sex workers said they had been subjected to beatings, knifings and rape. Worse than the physical abuse is the ongoing trauma. Years later, those we interviewed struggle with PTSD, chronic pelvic disease, the repercussions of forced abortions, depression, drug addiction, self-mutilation and shame.

We need a comprehensive approach to the sex industry that involves social workers, law enforcement, employers, politicians and citizens as a whole. The first step is to recognize the harm that naturally occurs in the sex industry. The second step is to establish support systems to help victims overcome their traumas and become survivors. And third, we need to stop future victimization by combating the vulnerabilities in our youth. The current evil in the system preys on the vulnerable among us.

Prostitution is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, but legalization and decriminalization is not the answer. The Canadian decision ignores the most important part of the sex industry dilemma: the victims and those adrift in harm's way. The rights of the small percentage of voluntary sex workers should not take precedence over the lives, bodies and souls of those who are forced to work in prostitution as sex slaves.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT