Prostitution is already destigmatized, it’s not helping

Marylène Levesque. (Image: Facebook)

Last week, 22-year-old Marylène Lévesque was murdered by a 51-year-old man named Eustachio Gallese. Lévesque was in prostitution, employed by a Quebec “massage parlour,” where men paid her for sex. The Montreal Gazette reports that Gallese had been banned from the massage parlor for being violent with other women working there, so Levesque agreed to meet him at a hotel.

In 2004, Gallese was given a life sentence for killing his girlfriend, Chantale Deschenes, who he beat with a hammer, then stabbed in the face and chest. Gallese reportedly covered her dead body with a comforter, then wrote, “A cunt is always a cunt” on the bedroom wall before turning himself in to police. This not a one off. He had a history of domestic violence, and had been convicted of assault against a previous partner in 1997.

Due to good behaviour in prison, Canada’s parole board downgraded Gallese’s risk of reoffending from “high” to “moderate,” then granted him day parole at a halfway house in March.

According to the Montreal Gazette, visiting prostituted women was an approved part of Gallese’s Parole Board of Canada-approved “social re-insertion plan.” Though they recognized he could not safely have relationships with women, it was determined that Gallese should have his “sexual needs” met.

In September, after being granted a further six months of day parole, a summary of the board’s decision explains:

“Although you are still single and you say you aren’t ready to enter into a serious relationship with a woman, you are able to efficiently evaluate your needs and expectations towards women. During the hearing, your parole officer underlined a strategy that was developed with the goal that would allow you to meet women in order to address your sexual needs.”

It was due to this decision that Gallese was permitted to continue to abuse women, and gain access to Lévesque. It is unclear why the Parole Board of Canada would make such a determination, considering Canada’s current laws, which criminalize the purchase of sex. One might assume this is the result of a failure of Canada’s Liberal government to take seriously and enforce this law.

In response to Lévesque’s murder, Stella, a Montreal lobby group advocating the legalization of prostitution, claimed the incident signals a need for the government to decriminalize the purchase of sex and “destigmatize” prostitution.

But this has already happened, essentially, and it enabled Gallese to kill Lévesque. Prostitution is so normalized in our culture, that authorities deem buying sex a man’s right — not only harmless, but rehabilitative. Though Canada’s prostitution laws criminalize the purchase of sex, as well as pimping and keeping a “bawdy house” (brothel), “massage parlours” operate with near impunity and the police do little to go after johns in many provinces.

Sandra Wesley, Stella’s executive director, told Vice,“It is very obvious that criminalization of sex work facilitated the violence of this man.” She also claimed these kinds of laws — based on the Nordic model — means prostituted women are not able to “operate in a safe and secure environment.” The very case in question, though, demonstrates the emptiness of this claim. Levesque was working in a supposedly “safe and secure environment.” According to lobbyists for the full decriminalization of prostitution, a “massage parlour,” hotel room, or apartment is an ideal location for prostitution. Indoors is safer than outdoors, they claim. Working out of  brothels, we are told, ensures women are not subjected to violence. And yet, the women working in the Quebec massage parlour frequented by Gallese were not protected. In truth, those working under full decriminalization say they experience more abuse than they did before legalization.

Violence against prostituted women does not happen because of “stigma,” it happens because men who pay for sex seek out vulnerable women to abuse. And because they are permitted to do so with impunity. It also happens because prostitution inherently makes women vulnerable (they are alone with strange men who have no interest in their health, safety, or well being) and draws vulnerable women — women who are desperate and who have no other options. Men who pay for sex know this — they know the women they are paying have no other choice, otherwise they would not be there. They know they are in a position to behave in violent, abusive, cruel ways, and that there is little the prostituted woman can do about it. Men who pay for sex see these women as disposable, and are aware they are likely to get away with the abuse they inflict on them. They believe that’s what women in prostitution are for.

Had prostitution been stigmatized and had the law been taken seriously, Gallese would have not been allowed access to any women. If prostitution were viewed as another form of misogynist abuse, an exception would never have been made. If selling sex were not widely viewed as “a job like any other” or a necessary “service,” this situation would not have occurred.

One thing that will stop men from abusing women in the sex trade is accountability — that means stigmatizing men who purchase sex. Sending the message that those who exploit women by buying or selling them will not get away with it. Saying that women are human, and do not exist for men’s use — they are not things to be bought and sold and used and abused. The other thing would be removing access: ensuring men do not have the option of exploiting vulnerable women. Making it easier for men to find women to abuse will not curb violence.

Normalizing the sex trade has already happened. We joke about porn and prostitution as though it is harmless. We imagine that women in the sex trade enjoy themselves and are making an “empowered choice.” We act as though all men use porn, go to strip clubs, and pay for sex. We think nothing of it. We tell them it’s normal. It is a “need,” after all. We don’t think about the women and girls at the other end of these transactions or on the other side of the computer screen, and wonder about the physical and psychological impact of being degraded and abused day in and day out. We don’t think about the circumstances that led them there in the first place. We treat them as one-dimensional objects.

One reason Marylène Lévesque is dead is that authorities consistently do not take men’s violence seriously. They don’t pay attention to histories of abuse, and they let men who have shown themselves to be dangerous slip through the cracks. Another is that prostitution has been successfully sold by groups like Stella as good for society, good for men, and good for women — both harmless and necessary. These kinds of lobby groups have argued for years that sex is a human right, and that men will be violent or abusive if they don’t have access to porn and prostitution. Yet we can see clearly that the opposite is true. Treating sex and women’s bodies as a right — something men are entitled to access — hurts women, particularly those women men are told do not matter, are not human, who are there to be used and discarded, who are there to fulfill a fantasy, no matter how dark.

Let us not use the tragic death of a young woman to further normalize the very thing that supported her murder.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, BC. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and is now exiled in Mexico with her very photogenic dog.