For most people, it is probably taken for granted that what they decide to eat; if they have a beer with dinner and relax with a cigarette or a reefer afterwards; whether they exercise, engage in sports, or live like a couch potato; whether they ride a bike to work or drive a car; and whether they will undergo invasive medical procedures or opt for homeopathy is a matter of choice. People will assert that they have sovereignty over their corporeal selves. Right-wingers should have few qualms with such as a notion, as it is in line with their ideal of “rugged individualism” – that government should butt out and allow individuals to pursue their own fates. Nonetheless, there are clear instances when right-wing religious fundamentalism will clash with right-wing political ideology; for example, proclaiming the right to legislate against forms of entrepreneurship when it comes to sexuality and commerce. Right-wing governments (are there any other kinds in most western states?) will assume the right to declare illegal the ingestion of certain substances, and government will intrude into the sphere of individual end-of-life decisions. This three-part series examines colloquially the question of whether we have, and should have, dominion over our own bodies.
Dawn has broken on late winter day as a family of three sits around the breakfast table. The mother is pouring coffee, and the father is enjoying his blueberry waffles with melted butter. The son is eating plain yogurt to which he has added fresh berries and nuts. He scans his parents’ newspaper.
“Get a load of this,” recommended Sam, laying the sparse pages of that moribund medium down on the kitchen table. “It says here that ‘The Supreme Court of Canada has struck down the country’s anti-prostitution laws in a unanimous decision, and given Parliament one year to come up with new legislation —should it choose to do so.’ It’s about time.”
Sam’s father, Mr. Sykes, seated across from him at the table, wrinkled his forehead and shot back: “What are they going to do about all the prostitutes then?”
“Why nothing! Nothing against them. Isn’t the government supposed to do good for all its citizens?” replied the son.
“That’s right,” said Mrs. Sykes who was seated between the two men. “Why not go after the customers? The Johns?”
Sam smiled at his mother’s use of the term John. “Why should they go after anyone?” asked Sam. “Except those people who are exploiting the sex workers.”
“Hookers destroy the neighborhoods. What about the kids who see them?”
“I think they prefer to be called sex workers,” Sam gently corrected his father. “First, why should the reality of society be hidden from anyone, including kids? Second, kids see it all over the place anyway. The see it on magazines, in music videos; they see it in movies; they see it all over TV. So they know sex is out there all over the place”
“But it is shameful,” protested Mrs. Sykes.
“Is sex shameful? Was it shameful that you and Dad had me?” Sam immediately regretted his choice of example.
“Well, we were married,” said Mrs. Sykes defensively.
“Yes. And some of the sex workers may also be married, and,” he hastened to add, “I know you’ll say that is even more shameful. But sex and marriage and exclusivity is a question of morality. I think it is something all partners have to decide for themselves. This whole issue speaks to morality. Should one group impose its morality over another group? Besides, haven’t you always impressed on me to always have a job, and that not wanting to work was shameful — although I do not totally agree with this because most people want a job, but they want a job that is stimulating and pays fairly?”
Sam continued, “Doesn’t everyone need money to pay the rent, put food on the table, put clothes on their back, and whatnot? You know there are not enough jobs out there for everyone. That’s why they have something called unemployment, and the unemployment rate is a fictitious representation of actual unemployment because, as you know, people starting out in the job market are not counted, people who have been out of work for over two years are not counted, people who are in school to upgrade themselves to get a job are not counted, people who are working part-time and just barely scraping by are not counted, and people who have given up are not counted. So should we blame the sex workers for working or should we blame the society for not providing decent jobs for all its people?”
The parents nodded their heads. They saw that their son, a third year anthropology student, had a point, and they found that he often had good points.
“Yes, I agree that everyone should have a decent job,” said the father. “So if the government made sure that everyone had a decent job, then we could outlaw prostitution?”
“Still I disagree,” said Sam. He sat back in his chair. “Is sex dirty? Whose body is it? Does your body belong to you, or does it belong to the government? Didn’t prime minister Trudeau say a long time ago that the state does not belong in the bedrooms of the nation? Which, to me means government shouldn’t be meddling in the sexuality of its consenting adults. I think it is very much less likely that a lot of women would be sex workers — and men, too; I know that there are male sex workers as well — but still there might be some who choose to be sex workers.”
“Someone would want to be a sex worker?” asked Mrs. Sykes.
“Sure, you know I once had a roommate who was a stripper. She didn’t have to be a stripper, but she said she did it because it paid so much more than being a secretary. It was a choice.”
“Should anyone be able to tell you what you can or can not do with your body? Is that right?” asked Sam.
The parents sat quietly for a while and contemplated. His mother bit into a slice of whole wheat toast.
Sam’s father tipped back his coffee mug and set it back down on a coaster. “I guess you are right, but what about diseases and drugs?”
“You mean STDs and such? I can not know for sure. But if the government will not ensure that the society provides decent jobs — and decent is a key word because minimum wage slavery at McDonald’s is hardly decent – then it has to stop stigmatizing and criminalizing those people that fend for themselves. It would seem far more reasonable for everyone if sex workers were employed at sex centers – I don’t know what to call them, but ‘brothels’ doesn’t seem like the right word – so that the women and men who are sex workers are off the streets. Sanitation, health, prophylactics and such could all be controlled in such a center, kind of like what they do in Europe, and heck, the government could even get back money in taxes. The workers would be like independent contractors, empowered — and the pimps and their drugs would get the boot.”
“Now,” proposed Sam, “what sounds better? To have sex workers standing outside on freezing street corners with minimal attire and breathing in exhaust fumes to take a chance with strangers – johns, jills – and after to be bullied and robbed by pimps who introduce them to addictive and controlling drugs. Add onto that the allotment of resources to police sex work, and the time wasted by politicians to legislate against sex work, laws which are, in fact, granting the state dominion over our bodies.”
He continued, “Contrast that with sanitary centers with a staff that includes health professionals, sex workers who are free from diseases and protected from contracting diseases and protected from bodily harm and protected from customers who welch on payment. The pimps are gone; the police and courts can focus on genuine crime, and the government has a new revenue stream. And people have dominion over their own bodies.”
Which choice ought it to be?