Making Work, Making Trouble:
Prostitution as a Social Problem

by Deborah R. Brock,
ISBN: 080200976X

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by Lorraine Johnson

There's little doubt that, sexually, we're a confused bunch. And when you add to the anxieties of libido the complications of commerce, as prostitution does, you're guaranteed to press explosive social buttons.

For decades, public debate on prostitution has been monopolized by the police, legislators, residents' groups, municipal politicians, and feminist groups. Despite their different agendas, what these varied voices share is an assumption that prostitution is a problem. With Making Work, Making Trouble, Deborah Brock asks the important but under-represented questions: for whom and why?

In her rigorous and nuanced study, Brock pulls back the seductive curtain of assumption and explores how the "problem" of prostitution is in fact a social creation, generated by groups that have joined forces (complicitly or implicitly) to produce a mass moral panic about a profession that has existed in some form throughout all of human history. As Brock, who has taught sociology and women's studies at Ryerson, Wilfrid Laurier, and Trent universities, puts it: "This is a story about the making of social problems. Rather than beginning with the assumption that social problems exist as social facts, as objectively discoverable conditions in a society, I explore them as the creation of a complex interplay of economic and social forces at particular historical moments in specific locations."

Despite the cliché ("the oldest profession in the world"), discussions of prostitution tend to ignore the fact that prostitution is a job, albeit one uniquely-i.e., morally-regulated by the state. Rather than focusing on the political realities of labour relations, we tend to get mired in the moral minefield of sexual relations. Yet if one examines prostitution from the point of view of the people actually engaged in the work, as Brock does, then one immediately encounters familiar labour issues: a desire for control over working conditions, occupational choice, financial autonomy, workplace safety, etc. One might reasonably ask if there is any other legal profession in Canada in which the places and manner one may engage in the work are so heavily and confusingly regulated.

As Brock makes clear, state regulation of prostitution has done little to improve the working conditions of prostitutes and has, instead, put prostitutes at risk. By criminalizing certain aspects of the profession, we make it highly unlikely that prostitutes will turn to the police when they are threatened or harmed by their customers, for example. Brock's analysis takes on an urgent note when she points to the failure of our regulatory regime: according to Statistics Canada, between 1991 and 1995, sixty-three known prostitutes were murdered in Canada (5% of the women killed in Canada over that same period). As she succinctly states, "social marginalization has deadly consequences".

The central question, of course, is why we're loath to address prostitution as a labour relation, as primarily an economic exchange that trades a valued service for money. Brock gives a nod to the various possible responses to this question, from the moral ("prostitution as a sin against God") to the mainstream feminist (prostitution as "society's clearest expression of the sexual domination of women and young people"), but her purpose is not to explain or critique these arguments; "[r]ather, it is to demonstrate how, regardless of approach, prostitution takes on greater social meaning at some times than others, and becomes the target of public, media, and state action".

In this, Making Work, Making Trouble reads at times like an exposé or primer on how the media, police, and residents' groups join forces to create a moral panic. Whether examining the sudden concern over sex clubs in downtown Toronto in the mid- to late 1970s, the class-driven "cleansing" of prostitutes from city streets in Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary, or youth prostitution in the 1980s, Brock charts the fickle ebb and flow of the state's regulatory interest (and the media's prurient interest) in prostitution. Although there's ample room for outrage in this exploration, Brock adopts a restrained tone, such as when she dryly states (but doesn't milk) the delicious irony that the first student of Toronto's "John School" was in fact a provincial Tory MP. Other ironies are less quaint, such as the contradiction at the heart of efforts to protect youths who work in prostitution: the lip service given to their status as "victims" is the driving force behind their treatment as criminals.

It is in her critique of the Badgley Report (the $2 million study on sexual offenses against children and youths, initiated by the federal government in 1981 and released in 1984) that Brock's analytic skills are most powerfully and persuasively deployed. And-it is perhaps necessary to add-most bravely, as it is a courageous person indeed who challenges the notion that youth prostitution is a problem requiring a protection-oriented legislative solution. In an era of heightened hysteria regarding youth sexuality, any questioning of the party line (the dominant view that all sexual activity involving young people is dangerous and coercive) is bound to raise ire, yet Brock tackles the issue unflinchingly. In untangling the social fears that fuelled the Badgley Report, she points out that distinctions between sexual activities were collapsed by the committee, so that peer sexual play between youths was considered in the same conceptual framework as incest. Likewise, age distinctions were collapsed, so that the sexual activity of an eighteen-year-old was considered in the same light as the sexual activity of a twelve-year-old. These, and a host of other factors enumerated by Brock, led to a central blindness in the Badgley Report: "the committee was unable to address its most significant findings concerning why young people resort to prostitution: economic necessity and financial gain".

Brock does delve into these economic issues and her assertions are sure to rankle conservative moralists, especially when she states that "the organization of prostitution as a work relation [is] not so different from other kinds of jobs that women, particularly working-class women, take up" or "given the low pay and limited range of jobs open to women, prostitution may appear to be the best available option. In this context, fifteen minutes of sex with a man for a minimum of $80 is perhaps no more exploitive or degrading than working eight hours a day at a sewing machine in a sweatshop for minimum wage". While these statements appear to be extreme, there's a tentativeness to their formulation ("not so different" and "perhaps no more") that I found slightly timid and that mirrored a kind of subtle hesitance in some places throughout the book. As in many academic works, one often hungers for the passion of declarative value judgements.

However, Brock's subjective prescriptions do come through loud and clear in the last chapter. Here, the reader finds suggestions born out of level-headed logic: "[C]learly, the legislators, the courts, and the police cannot make prostitution disappear... Criminalization cannot eliminate or necessarily decrease the sex trade, because women (and men) have to work, and will continue to find new ways to do so. It cannot adequately address the `crisis' of youth prostitution, because prostitution is not the source of young people's problems".

What Brock finally proposes is that instead of wasting effort on trying to eliminate the sex trade, we should "set ourselves to improving conditions for women within it, in order that prostitutes gain more control over their working conditions". Brock's eloquent and convincing book makes it clear that this is a job worth working for. 

Lorraine Johnson is the author of five books, the most recent of which are Grow Wild! Native Plant Gardening in Canada and Northern United States and Suggestive Poses: Artists and Critics Respond to Censorship. Concerned about the seeming disparity between her interest in gardening and in censorship, she reminds herself that both are mainly about sex.


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