The crisis over Canada’s prostitution laws means now is the time to bring urgently needed improvements in law – and in our attitudes and ministries as individuals and as Christian institutions.
Note: This article was also reprinted in a supplement on prostitution in the May/Jun 2014 issue.
Every time something really bad would happen to Katarina MacLeod, 38, she would get a tattoo. The Toronto-area woman is covered from head to toe. “I thought if I covered myself, clients would be scared,” she says. One tattoo reads “D.T.A.,” which stands for “Don’t Trust Anyone.” Another is a black rose, dripping with blood. It says, “Love is Suicide.”
Her clients included “lawyers, judges, construction workers, police, guys who want things done that they obviously can’t do with their better half, and regular guys who come in and want some comfort.”
MacLeod entered the “sex trade” by working in massage parlours at age 21. She had a few more years of life behind her than most girls do when they are first trapped, but what led up to it is agonizingly typical. “I was in an abusive relationship. I had been abused most of my life,” she explains. “My father didn’t have much to do with us. We grew up in the system.”
MacLeod endured violent relationships with one bad boyfriend after another. She lived through abuse better called torture. If her life were a movie, you would want to look away, horrified by what was unfolding on the screen in front of you.
“I think what happened was because I was an abuse victim for so long – these kinds of people prey on the weak. You end up in this whirlwind of wanting to be accepted and wanting to be loved,” she says.
A month after she had her fourth child, her 14-year-old eldest daughter told her she was being raped by MacLeod’s current boyfriend – the father of MacLeod’s new baby. “I needed a lawyer, so I started turning tricks. How was I going to pay the bills? I have these four kids, I need to pay rent. I need to make money. I have no education,” she says. “I didn’t know any other way.”
She estimates 10,000 men bought her for sex during her years as a prostituted woman. Sometimes she would turn 10 tricks a night and work seven days a week.
“Prostitution is something that happens to you, not because of you.”
MacLeod has been free of prostitution for two years now, and free of drugs for almost that long. “In selling my body I became a drug addict, popping pills. Every girl I’ve ever met in this industry has been abused,” she says. “Girls as young as 14, with moms that were drug addicts. Not one girl I met was stable. All of us did drugs; every single one was high. If you have a soul, you can’t do this and feel no shame or not dirty. Feeling like that for so long, if you don’t numb it, you’re going to kill yourself.”
Two years out is not a long time.
But MacLeod has turned her former life inside out trying to make sense of it. “I have gone through every emotion out there,” she says. When asked the painful question – if she felt, with the vantage point of time, she could have made a different choice so many years ago – her answer is unequivocal. “No. I don’t believe there was a choice. I had no one offering me help. I didn’t have people close to me. I didn’t know if there were resources. It didn’t even cross my mind. What I knew how to do was sell my body. And that’s what I did.”
An Un-free Choice
Derek Parenteau helps run STAND (Street Alternatives and New Directions) out of Yonge St. Mission in Toronto. STAND helps prostituted girls who are ready to begin the slow, painful climb off the streets and out of the massage parlours. “No one is in it because they like it,” says Parenteau. “They’ve been forced into it, either directly by a pimp or indirectly by financial need.”
After years of working in this ministry, Parenteau has reached a conclusion, one he says is shared by “anyone who has credibility and is doing good work, whether Christian or otherwise.” His conclusion: “That people working in the sex trade are the victims. The others are sexual exploiters, the predators. If you really know what you are doing and you are really involved, nothing else makes sense.”
“Prostitution,” says Danielle Strickland, pastor of a Salvation Army church in the inner city of Edmonton, smack dab in the prostitution stroll area, “is something that happens to you, not because of you.” And it happens to Canadian girls when they are very young.
“The vast majority of women engaged in sex work get into it when they are still minors,” says Greg Paul, director of Sanctuary, an inner-city ministry in downtown Toronto. “The median age is 15 or 16. If we say it is their choice, then we are saying that at 15, the majority of people who will be sex workers are making a clear, adult, non-pressured decision and saying, ‘That’s what I’d really like to do, is have men pay me for sex.’ There’s something drastically wrong with that picture.”
John Cassells is managing director of Light Patrol, a mobile street program of Youth Unlimited in Toronto. The program has a focused effort called SafeLight “especially for young women whose lives have been affected by sexual exploitation.” Safe-Light works with two groups of women who are prostituted: high track and low track.
Cassells explains: “We go to build friendships with the high-track girls. Those are the girls who are usually not dealing with mental health issues. It is an opportunity for them to be with someone who treats them with dignity, who knows about their life at street level. The low track girls are literally homeless, usually drug addicted and often have mental health disorders.”
What the two groups have in common – besides almost always being fatherless – is “that they are victims of violence. When you look at, not just the dangers, but the harm that comes to girls in prostitution, you can only conclude that it is a very violent and harmful environment,” says Cassells.
Julia Beazley is a policy analyst with The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). In 2011 its Centre for Faith and Public Life in Ottawa published the discussion paper Selling Ourselves: Prostitution in Canada, Where Are We Headed? (available at www.theEFC.ca/prostitution).
Beazley says Cassells is right about the violence. “Their stories are all the same once they’re in. Stories of degradation, dehumanization, violence and abuse. It’s horrific. The majority have no say, no choice. How can we call ‘choice’ a decision made out of desperation, for survival, or for utter lack of good, healthy choices?”
Prostitution Goes to Court
Last fall it was almost impossible to look away as Terri-Jean Bedford, a dominatrix clad in leather, stood in front of media cameras and declared it “emancipation day” as three key provisions in Canada’s anti-prostitution laws were struck down by an Ontario court.
Bedford and her two fellow constitutional challengers presented prostitution as a business and themselves as entrepreneurs of the erotic. They argued that what is called, almost always with a knowing smile, the world's oldest profession, can be made safer for women by dismantling the legal restrictions against living off the avails of prostitution, keeping a bawdy house and communicating for the purposes of prostitution.
But striking down those prohibitions – a legal decision that, it is safe to say, came out of left field for most Canadians – is “giving a gift to traffickers and abusers. That is the worst thing they can do,” says MacLeod.
During the Ontario case Robert Pickton’s name came up. It was argued the serial killer who preyed on prostituted women in Vancouver’s east end, brutally murdering at least 26 of them on his farm of horrors, would not have had access to the women he killed if they had been safely tucked away in a legal brothel.
Michelle Miller runs REED (Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity), a Vancouver-based group that journeys with women who are being sexually exploited. “Don’t you dare bring up Robert Pickton,” says Miller, “there’s nothing that rattles my cage more than that.”
Miller says the women Pickton killed – plucked out of the neighbourhood where Miller spends most of her time – would never have been employed by a brothel in the first place; they would not have been classified as clean of drugs or disease. They teetered on the lowest rung of the slippery, desperate ladder that leads women so quickly into the ugly pit of prostitution – and makes it so incredibly difficult to climb out of.
There is not much that, in Canada today, could have kept them safe.
As shocking as it was for the Ontario court to strike down the prostitution laws, advocates fighting for the safety and rights of women who are prostituted view this moment as an opportunity.
Now we have a chance to reshape Canada’s laws to reflect the unpalatable reality of prostitution: the girls, boys and women trapped in its snare are victims – and something more has to be done about the pimps who own them and the johns who buy them.
Hard Questions Can Create Good Laws
“It’s time we start asking ourselves – as individuals, as churches, and as a nation – some hard questions about prostitution,” says Beazley. “We have all heard it said over and over that it’s the world’s oldest profession, but we know that in reality, as others have said before, it’s the world’s oldest oppression. And to what other injustice has our response been to tolerate or condone it simply because ‘that’s the way it’s always been’? Or worse, to legitimize or legalize it? None. While we may not always immediately recognize an injustice for what it is – once we do, we fight it. This is a fight whose time has come.”
The Canadian government has appealed the Ontario court decision [Read about the Dec. 2013 Bedford decision elsewhere in these articles]. Meanwhile the EFC, along with other individuals and concerned groups, is advocating an alternative legal framework known as the Nordic Model, based on Sweden’s success in almost completely dismantling prostitution.
“The Nordic model,” explains Beazley, “is the best model out there right now.” Implemented in 1999, Sweden’s Law on the Prohibition of Purchase of Sexual Services establishes prostitution as a form of abuse. It criminalizes the buyers, not the sellers. Pimps and johns are arrested and charged, while prostituted women are offered a strong exit network of support.
Within one year the number of prostitutes in Sweden decreased by 50 per cent.
“I totally believe in that Nordic model,” says MacLeod. “If you criminalize the johns and decriminalize the women, I think men will think twice.”
If Christians believe there won’t be men sitting beside them on the pews on Sundays who need to think twice, think again.
“They are married men with kids,” says Danielle Strickland, of the johns who cruise through her neighbourhood. “They are your dads. The busiest time in our neighbourhood is before work.”
Johns in the Pews
Michelle Miller in Vancouver concurs: “We see men driving through our alleyways at 7:30 in the morning. They have car seats in the back, and sometimes there’s a little fish sticker on the back of the van.”
John Cassells of Light Patrol says, “Probably most of the readers will actually be going to church currently with someone who visits prostitutes. They’re really the average guy. They cross those boundaries to think that they can obtain a position of power to go and choose who they will be intimate with. The position of the john is much more about seeking power and control than seeking a good and fulfilling sexual experience.”
Dion Oxford is chair of Street Level, the EFC’s roundtable on poverty and homelessness, and director of The Salvation Army Gateway in downtown Toronto: “When I was working out there more hands-on, there would certainly be men driving around in minivans with baby seats in the back. These are married, middle-aged men, some of whom were picking up boys; church men who are gay and married.”
If it’s shocking to think the johns come from your neighbourhood, remember, it might be the girl who lives next door they are purchasing.
“Where do these girls come from? They come from our neighbourhoods,” says Cassells. “They are going to school with our kids. It is the kid who you don’t let your child go to their house, and you don’t let your child invite them to yours, because you know there is trouble. That is the kid who is likely to get involved in prostitution.”
So, what is the Church to do?
A lot more, and quite a bit differently.
“We like to have a G-rated church, but as soon as you open the Bible, you realize Christianity is not always rated G,” says Cassells. “The Church needs to engage in this issue, and become aware that out of the many prostitutes and the many, many buyers, we all know people personally involved in prostitution at some level.”
The church indeed welcomes the broken and attempts to usher in healing, while at the same time facing injustice that would be easier to ignore – and opposing it. Prostitution is clearly such an injustice, where vulnerable women (and children and some men) are abused to meet the unrestrained appetites of people with whom we cross paths daily.
A Question of Justice
Evangelicals who work on this issue are calling the Church to shift its thinking from prostitution as an issue of morality – or of a perceived lack of it in the women who are prostitutes – and shift the conversation to one about justice – or the actual absence of it for the women who are prostituted.
“Like many of these kinds of issues it is important to fight it on the political level, but if we believe it is exploitation, then we have a big job to do as a church,” says STAND’s Derek Parenteau. “We need to give opportunity for people to get out. The average person I work with has a Grade 8 education; there are going to be barriers. If they have a kid at home and have known nothing else for the last 12 years, they’re going to need lots of help.”
Just as the Church is reaching out, it needs to look in, says Michelle Miller. “When I speak at churches, the first thing I do is make the connection with online pornography, which is just enormous in our culture. And as followers of Christ, we are called to go four or five steps further and look at the systems of power and abuse that make prostitution possible in the first place.
“One question that burns me,” says Miller, “is: Why is it that people who are so ready to care for and be passionate about fighting for justice for a kid who is being trafficked in Costa Rica will blame the aboriginal woman on the street corner in their own town?”
That is a good question.
For all the waking up and soul-searching the Church as a whole might need to do, the Church as community can, and does, provide a healing, restorative – if imperfect -place for women escaping prostitution. “People involved in sex work think that Christians are really inclined to condemn them. I think that’s been the truth, but not nearly as true as people think,” says Greg Paul. “There is also a great deal of compassion historically by people of faith to women trapped in prostitution.”
And, says Dion Oxford, “God is bigger than prostitution. But just because you’ve accepted Jesus into your heart doesn’t mean it will all go away.”
Katarina MacLeod knows that better than anyone.
“I realize that who I am now is who I should have been all those years,” she says. “I want the Church to realize that we are victims, and just welcome us like they would welcome anyone else. I’m someone’s daughter, and that’s the way I want to be treated – like I am precious.”
Her real name, by the way, is not Katarina. “My old name I associate with violence and abuse and I am in the process of legally changing it,” she explains. MacLeod went to sleep one night, a little while after a friend supported her financially and emotionally deep enough and long enough to enable her to leave prostitution – and after years of her oldest daughter, a committed Christian, telling her over and over again God loved her. She heard the name Katarina in her mind. “I woke up and thought, ‘That is what I want people to call me.’ I knew that it had something to do with God telling me I was beautiful and pure.”
She looked it up and the name Katarina means “pure.”
Today MacLeod works with an organization called Walk With Me that helps victims of human trafficking. She speaks in Toronto-area schools, sharing her story in vivid, hard-core detail to wake up the students to the potential dangers they are in.
MacLeod had 58 tattoos before she got her final one, a little different from the rest. “My last tattoo, on the left side of my neck, says, ‘Grace.’ I didn’t have a word for what I received until my daughter said, ‘Mom, it’s grace!’” And Katarina said to her daughter, “That’s it!” FT
KAREN STILLER is a senior editor at Faith Today.
What You Can Do
• Get educated. Tap into the resources of organizations like REED (www.embracedignity.org), Walk With Me (www.wix.com/timea77/walk-with-me) and the EFC (www.theEFC.ca/prostitution), especially for understanding the Nordic model.
• Write and call your MP requesting the Nordic model be implemented in Canada. The EFC offers tips on taking action at www.theEFC.ca/TakeAction.
• Give this article to your minister, and then ask him or her to preach more often and openly on topics like pornography, prostitution and injustice.
• If you have children in your home, create an open speaking environment about topics like sex, marriage, pornography and how we view women who are prostituted. Discuss how pornography and prostitution are signs of God’s good gifts gone awry.
• Stop viewing pornography. Get help from an experienced Christian counsellor or specialized ministry such as xxxchurch.com. More links available at www.theEFC.ca/pornography.
• Financially and prayerfully support organizations on the front lines of helping women who are prostituted, like the organizations mentioned in this article.
• Pray for the victims of prostitution and for the men who buy them, that they would all be freed.