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 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT