Role of Prostitution Laws in Criminalizing Women Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

Criminalization occurs when women are treated like offenders rather than victims when they defend themselves against abusive males. Criminalized women are made to feel like they are the ones responsible for situations such as damage to property, child exposure to violence, immigration status issues, reputational damage, homelessness, and poverty occurring as a direct result of male violence. We have heard of numerous cases -- for instance, where women living with abusive partners are accused of failing to protect their children, and are held responsible in the unfortunate event that the children fall victim to, or witness disturbing episodes of domestic violence. The situation is no different in the prison system, where these women are incarcerated upon conviction. Rather than strive to address the social injustices such as poverty, sexual and domestic abuse, and psychological issues that drive such women to commit crime, we dedicate our attention to making their lives in prison as hard as is humanly possible.

We use the severest of techniques and put the most insensitive of people in as prison officials to induce them to change their criminal ways; but what we do not realize is that we are only colonizing them further and cultivating a culture of impunity where people routinely get away with the social injustices that they commit against women. Noticeably, the state appears to have started appreciating this fact. Numerous policies have been put in place to introduce reforms geared at reducing the criminalization of women by making the prison and criminal justice system more responsive to their needs. However, the rate of women, particularly indigenous women, being criminalized in the justice system still remains relatively high. This prompts one fundamental question -- what kind of change then is required to address issues related to the social exclusion and criminalization of women?

What Kind of Change is Required: The Effect of Neo-Liberalism

The Neo-liberalism theory suggests that maximum gains are realized if there is only very minimal government interference, and agents are left to do more independently (on their own). In neo-liberal times, therefore, change strategies are likely to be more effective if they allow women to take a more active role in their lives and those of others through dialogue (Balfour, 2006:265). What women require, therefore, is a prison atmosphere that facilitates healing and reconstruction through dialogue and that helps them reestablish themselves through the experiences of others. They need to be educated, both inside and outside the prison walls on, among other things, what their human rights are, how these are protected under the law, and how to stand up against racism, abuse, and male violence. Only then will they be able to understand their position in society, and put forth an effective campaign against social exclusion and violence at the individual level. This text shows how neo-liberal laws have been used to bring about substantive change in the lives of victimized women in the prison system, and outlines some additional strategies that could be used to empower women outside the justice system. The author reckons that in order to be effective in bringing about positive change in the lives of criminalized women, we will need to adopt a holistic approach, with empowerment strategies that respond to the needs of victimized women both inside and outside the criminal justice system.

The Role of the Law in Addressing the Issue of Social Exclusion

Most of the laws that have been formulated in this regard have been geared at i) reducing the number of women who are incarcerated for using force to defend themselves against abusive men and ii) improving prison conditions for incarcerated women to stop them from being criminalized further. The most significant of these are the laws governing human rights, those governing sexual assault, and those governing the Battered Women Syndrome (Balfour, 2006: 260,261).

Human rights laws prevent incarcerated women from further criminalization and brutalization within the prison system and seek to make it a more pleasant environment for healing and reconstruction. They are based on the United Nations Human Rights Charter and require prison officers to put in place effective mechanisms to ensure that the human rights of prisoners, both male and female, are not infringed upon through such brutal acts as segregation, cross-gender monitoring, and strip searching (Balfour, 2006: 260). Further, such laws impose upon prison officials an obligation to ensure that mentally ill inmates under their care receive the requisite treatment and care (Balfour, 2006: 260). Evidence obtained from female inmates, however, shows that these laws are yet to have any tangible effect in Canadian prisons -- women, particularly indigenous women, continue to be victimized under brutal prison conditions. Aboriginal women particularly face higher risks of being placed in segregation and being denied family visits and other prisoner benefits (Balfour, 2006: 263). This implies that rather than provide the requisite healing to victimized women, we only cause further oppression by carrying the social injustices committed against them in the past over to the prison system in the form of inhumane conditions and racial criminalization. A perfect example is that of Ashley Smith, a 19-year-old who committed suicide in a segregation cell, where she had been held with no adequate clothing, no mattress, no shoes, and no blankets, and had been forced to spend multiple nights on the floor.

Laws governing sexual assault and those governing the Battered Woman Syndrome are both aimed at reducing the number of women who are victimized for using force to defend themselves against abusive males. The former is focused more on increasing "women's willingness to report sexual assault to the police," setting out the conditions of sexual consent, and shielding women from unhealthy cross-examination by defense attorneys (Balfour, 2006: 260). Battered Woman Syndrome laws, on the other hand, serve to shield women living with abusive spouses from being incarcerated for crimes that they commit against their spouses (Balfour, 2006: 261). Scores of women have been acquitted of their crimes on these grounds. A rather popular example is that of Angelique Lavallee, who was cleared of murder charges after it emerged that she had killed her husband out of the anger and frustration that she had harbored throughout her violent marriage (Balfour, 2006: 261). The applicability of this particular law is, however, limited by the fact that it is rather difficult to establish a clear distinction between when a woman is acting out of self-defense (in which case she qualifies to be acquitted) and when she is acting out of vengeance. If not well-implemented, the law could easily create a reverse culture of impunity, where women get away with crimes that they commit (knowingly) against men.

Some laws have also been accused of directly facilitating the colonization and continued oppression of women. Prostitution law, for instance, reinforces the perception that sex workers deserve what they get and are not as worth protecting as the rest of the population (Jane 2010: 12). It marginalizes them and opens up opportunities for people to get away with physically abusing them, harassing them, and exploiting them. This is particularly because i) clients who witness violence and abuse against sex workers are reluctant to report the same to the authorities for fear of being arrested; and ii) the abused sex workers themselves are reluctant to report violence committed against them for fear of police harassment and persecution (Canadian HIV / AIDS Legal Network, 2013: 2; Casavant & Valinquet, 2014: 5). This implies that the very law that was meant to protect sex workers from colonization only ends up subjecting them to further oppression and colonization.

These instances are sufficient proof that in as much as legislation does a lot to prevent the criminalization and brutalization of women, we cannot rely on it to fully address the conditions of sexual exclusion that criminalize women inside and outside the criminal justice system. Given that we live in a neo-liberal period, it would only be reasonable to complement it with more liberal strategies that take into account the views and perspectives of victimized women and assist them to play a more active role in their own decolonization.


Dell and his colleagues (2006: 315) define decolonization as the process by which previously colonized people "redefine themselves as a people and reassert their distinct identity." Decolonization helps people redefine their power and be able to respond effectively to the effects of stigma (Dell, et al., 2006: 317). The success of any decolonization strategy depends on how well it engages the very people that experience that colonization (in this case, women) (Pollack, 2006: 290). It could entail getting women more involved in community development activities and educating them on what their human rights are, how these are protected under the law, and how to stand up against racism, sexual and other forms of abuse, and male violence

The Role of Education in Decolonization and Social Exclusion

As already mentioned, strategies work best if they actively engage the people for whom they are formulated (Snider, 2006: 271). Educating women on what their human…

Sources Used in Document:


Balfour, G. (2006). Introduction to Part III. In E. Comack & G. Balfour (Eds.), Criminalizing Women: Gender and (In)Justice in Neo-Liberal Times (pp. 157-76). Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing

Canadian Prostitution Related Laws as of December, 2014 ( URL Link XXX)

Casavant, L. & Valiquet, D. (2014). Bill C-36: An Act to Amend the Criminal Code in Response to the Supreme Court of Canada Decision in Attorney General of Canada vs. Benford and to make Consequential Amendments to Other Acts. Library of Parliament. (URL Link XXX)

Dell, C.A., Gardipy, J., Kirlin, N., Naytowhow, V. & Nicol, J.J. (2006). Enhancing the Well-Being of Criminalized, Indigenous Women. In E. Comack & G. Balfour (Eds.), Criminalizing Women: Gender and (In)Justice in Neo-Liberal Times (pp. 314 -329). Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing

Cite This Essay:

"Role Of Prostitution Laws In Criminalizing Women" (2015, April 22) Retrieved December 10, 2019, from

"Role Of Prostitution Laws In Criminalizing Women" 22 April 2015. Web.10 December. 2019. <>

"Role Of Prostitution Laws In Criminalizing Women", 22 April 2015, Accessed.10 December. 2019,