Inner City Diary
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Prostitution "outreach workers" frustrate treatment
November 30, 2003
They did it again! Another constructive meeting between residents, police and treatment workers was frustrated by prostitution outreach workers and “advocates”.

Over the past years the West End has hosted many meetings about the issue of prostitution in the neighbourhood. It’s an old issue. Businesses, residents, police and treatment people try to get focused on addressing the problem.

We’re all agreed prostitution is wrong, criminal, unhealthy and dangerous. That’s why it’s not offered as a “Career Day” option in schools. We figured it’s a no-brainer!

Treatment or enforcement. The choice is plain for the women. And our responsibility is clear in the community – make sure both options are sufficiently resourced and vigorously pursued.

But almost every time our community has gathered around common sense solutions to the issue of prostitution, we are scolded by the same small group of publicly funded activists. “It’s more complicated than that! You’re so judgmental! What about prevention or safety for the women while they’re out there?”

And then the same thing happens at every meeting. They impede discussion and plans for treatment or enforcement by advocating for their role as outreach workers.

They claim their focus is advocacy, safety and prevention. But their arguments are getting old and sounding shallow. Their claim raises several questions.

How are they making life more safe for prostitutes?

It’s a life fraught with danger. Rape, addiction, disease, and death are constant threats to prostitutes. The answer offered by outreach workers to all these dangers is free condoms, clean needles and a “non-judgmental” listening ear.

Don’t get me wrong. All these are good. Better a condom than no condom. Better a clean needle than a dirty needle. Better a listening ear than no ear at all.

But occasional condoms, clean needles and listening ears were no protection to recently murdered, dismembered or raped prostitutes.

I can’t remember the last time a prostitute died in treatment or in jail. Why don’t these outreach workers vigorously support community efforts to get people to safety in treatment or incarceration? Instead, they defend the women’s right to be on the street to receive their occasional delivery of condoms, needles and benign conversation.

One resident commented, “They’re not concerned about protection of prostitutes! They’re concerned about protecting their jobs! Any fool would know that prostitutes are safer in treatment or in jail than they are on the street!”

What about the claim of advocacy?

I’ve learned it’s a fine line between advocating for the people and advocating for the activity.

These outreach workers maintain that they are advocating for the human rights of prostitutes.

Excuse me?! Human rights? What about human responsibilities? Respect for their rights as human beings doesn’t excuse them from their responsibility as neighbours. Their empowerment ends at the point they begin disempowering others.

People don’t need that kind of paid, professional “advocacy.” These safer prostitution advocates are not the only ones capable or willing to deliver options or compassion to prostitutes.

How are advocates being respectful of others’ rights when they distribute condoms and needles beside convenience stores and schoolyards frequented by children?

Human rights make sense in a context of human responsibility. I know that “criminals are people too.” That’s why I try to ensure that help is there when they need it. But if they don’t want help, then they’ve opted for enforcement. It’s that simple.

Outreach workers at our last meeting protested. “But, Harry, they live in your community! They’re parents of kids. You have no right to judge them, or tell them to get lost.”

Imagine if those workers said, “Don’t bug burglars or child molesters because they live or parent in your neighbourhood.” Sure they do. But if they continue to harm others or disrespect our neighbourhood, we’ll help them move to more appropriate lodging in Stoney Mountain, Portage or Headingly.

Lastly, the outreach workers positioned themselves as language police of the politically correct.

“Stop calling them hookers or prostitutes. That’s demeaning. They are ‘sexually exploited.’ Call them ‘sex trade workers.’”

But calling a prostitute “sexually exploited” is to deny her participation and solicitation of her exploitation. To call her a “sex trade worker” is to reduce the exploitation to a business transaction. We’re actually getting scolded for not disguising the demeaning nature of the transaction.

Some outreach workers and language police are whitewashing the truth.

Some outreach workers’ obstruction of community plans for treatment and enforcement is more than frustrating. I’m starting to feel it’s more related to their protection of their own role, employment, and funding.

Outreach is a good idea, and would increase in credibility if it was more respectful of law and community.
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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(204) 775-4929