Skip to main content

Sex workers are victims

By Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson
December 27, 2013 -- Updated 1316 GMT (2116 HKT)
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
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT