The politics surrounding prostitution

Terri-Jean Bedford has been the leading proponent in Canada for challenging the laws on prostitution. (Graphic by Laila Hack)
Terri-Jean Bedford has been the leading proponent in Canada for challenging the laws on prostitution. (Graphic by Laila Hack)

The Conservatives have stayed in power for as long as they have by being as milquetoast as possible. Harper has dodged social issues for years, rejecting the proposed opening of the abortion debate by his own party and allowing a vote on same-sex marriage to happen relatively unimpeded.

While their economic positions are hardly beyond reproach, the party has been able to comfortably dominate the centre-right by avoiding issues, which might split centrists, conservatives and isolated moderate liberals. Partly this is due to the near-implosion of the Liberal party itself, but for the most part the Tories have played an awfully clever realpolitik game.

And the Supreme Court may have just ruined their strategy.

In 2007, Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott brought a challenge against Canada’s prostitution laws to the courts, arguing that laws that criminalized aspects of the sex industry were unconstitutional. Specifically, they challenged the laws against keeping a bawdy house, living off the avails of prostitution and soliciting. While the pure act of prostitution is legal, the applicants argued these associated laws infringed on a sex worker’s constitutional right to safety by forcing them to operate in secret.

First, in 2012, an Appeals court ruled that some, though not all of the laws, wee unconstitutional.  The government, naturally, appealed, and the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear the case, releasing their unanimous decision that all the challenged laws were unconstitutional on December 20.

Almost immediately Harper responded. The Court gave the government a year to revise the laws so that sex workers would have their right to safety protected. While the prospect of full legalization seems unlikely, the Court’s decision means the Conservatives must open a debate on an issue that still profoundly divides people.

While same-sex marriage enjoys such (deserved) popular support that resistance to it, even in conservative circles, is becoming rarer and rarer, prostitution is not so fortunate. The moral argument still holds force to many, and more importantly there is still considerable debate as to whether prostitution has the capacity to liberating or oppressive.

Legalization appeals to most, I think, because we imagine that there are sex workers who have voluntarily chosen their jobs and enjoy them.  This is a liberating idea and comes with an image of women reclaiming an aspect of their sexuality that is brutally repressed in our society — though of course not only women are sex workers, that is the traditional image. And it is certainly true in some cases that sex workers want to be sex workers, and that legalization or reform would improve their safety and remove traditionally oppressive factors like pimps, brothels and organized crime.

At the same time, there’s a deeper question to ask about many of the people who become sex workers. For many people, especially those already discriminated against in other ways, sex work can be a desperate, frightening option.  While some people have the privilege to reasonably expect a safe, if unpleasant, ‘traditional’ job, for others becoming a sex worker is the only way to survive, and such work has the capacity to be uniquely degrading and dangerous.

Even this division is troublesome.  Not all sex workers are one or the other, and in fact most are not — to believe that sex workers are either enlightened volunteers or desperate and endangered is to reinforce a Madonna/whore dichotomy. The key in this issue is complexity — sex work is bound up in poverty, in race and class and gender and with the politics of sex itself.

Now, I’m not trying to say that prostitution ought to remain as unsafe as it is now. I agree with the Supreme Court that the laws, as they exist now, are dangerous and irresponsible. But prostitution cannot be seen, as some libertarians (including myself) occasionally say, as an issue of only freedom and choice.  There’s a lot more to it than that, and we’re going to have to confront a lot of serious issues within our society before we can even start to figure out how to fix the laws.

Already we’re starting to see a response.  Evangelical groups, up to this point frequent critics of the Conservatives’ ‘softness’, have reportedly already submitted proposals to the government.  Several women’s groups have already spoken on the issue, with varying conclusions and recommendations. And I think that Trudeau and the Liberals, already beginning to define themselves by a focus on youth-targeted social issues, will weigh in sooner rather than later.

So I think it’ll be a long road ahead, and one that may seriously shake up the Canadian political establishment. But more importantly, thanks primarily to the efforts of three women who were routinely savaged by the media, we have the opportunity to truly address some serious injustices.

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