For the very first time I have found myself agreeing with a piece of legislation brought forward by the Harper government.
So much of what they did was ill thought out, unconstitutional, ideologically based, and mean spirited to boot that I could be forgiven for simply dismissing everything they did as seriously flawed. But the more I have looked into Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act that was passed into law in response to the Supreme Court of Canada's Bedford decision, the more I find myself agreeing with the legislation which came into effect on November 6, 2014.
Every political party on the national scene in Canada has staked out a position on prostitution. The NDP, predictably, wants to study the problem, but generally supports decriminalization or legalization. The Greens and the Libertarians support full legalization. The Liberals, prior to the 2015 election, were considering a proposal to either decriminalize or legalize until Justin Trudeau decided that neither option went far enough to address, "the...violence that...is intrinsic to prostitution." The Libertarians support legalization on the principle that everything that can be treated as a market, should be. The Bloc tacitly supports either decriminalization or legalization on much the same grounds as the Greens and the NDP, harm reduction.
In 2014, the Conservatives brought in the new legislation and it is very much the "Nordic Model". The Liberals followed through in 2016 with the social supports the the Conservative legislation promised to assist anyone wanting to leave the "profession". The Conservatives began studying the issue long before the Bedford decision forced them to act. They agreed with Sweden in seeing prostitution "...as an aspect of male violence against women and children."
Both decriminalization and legalization are finding favour with the more progressive parties as both approaches promise to reduce the harm that sex workers suffer during the provision of sex for money. The 2014 legislation criminalized the purchasing of sex, not the provision, but it is felt that this will drive the trade underground, leading to more violence and abuse. There is some merit to this argument, but only in a short term, stop gap kind of way. Decriminalization and legalization have both been tried in a number of different jurisdictions. Neither has led to a decrease in prostitution, both have increased human trafficking, leading some jurisdictions to bring in a host of different legislative "solutions" to the human trafficking problem. In Germany where prostitution is legal, they now have over 400,000 prostitutes servicing over one million johns every day. The majority are young women of colour from the developing world who work for "retailers" living in apartments where they are charged the equivalent of four tricks a day for "rent".
It took a decade for Sweden to see results after they passed their legislation in 1999. The primary problem was getting the police to enforce the law. Through re-education of law enforcement they are now seeing the results. Trafficking of women and children into prostitution in Sweden is down to 300-400 people annually, compared to the 15,000+ in neighbouring Finland. There have been similar growing pains in Canada, with some jurisdictions hesitant to enforce the law. Some, like Vancouver, are holding out for legalization or decriminalization. Harm reduction is important, but institutionalizing the coercive violence, allowing pimps and johns to continue to abuse women, isn't the answer.
Some will see sex for money as a choice made by two adults that the state has no place interfering with. People should be free to choose their employment and to make transactions without sanction. I would agree with this sentiment, as far as it goes. Where it ends up, though, is as a labour market choice. The difference, to me, is that starvation and exposure, the threats implicit in the forced choices we make when choosing employment, are forms of coercive force that have no place as motivators in a civilized society. Couple this with the sex act, and it is clear that this "choice" is really no choice at all. Framing prostitution in this way is simply to acknowledge that our political economy has once again failed people. If a woman's best choice for employment is prostitution, what does that say about the employment options on offer in the marketplace?
Some will say that it was an outmoded morality that spurred the Conservative legislation and that times have changed. I don't think that times have changed as much as people may think. Do we talk to our daughters about prostitution as a career option? Do we encourage them to seek out "education" to better prepare them for their freely chosen profession? There is a stigma associated with prostitution that has been identified as part of the problem. It is thought that this stigma can only be addressed by normalizing prostitution as a profession through legalization or decriminalization. If we were ever to follow this path, I think the stigma would simply be transferred from the participants onto the society that thought that institutionalizing sexual violence was a good idea.
There are still challenges ahead for this legislation. Advocates have promised further constitutional challenges and enforcement is still less than it should be in some places in the country. But the promise of a future where pimping and the purchasing of sex is not a normal and accepted part of commerce, and where very few women and girls are forced into putting their bodies on the line, and where those most at risk are provided with the help and support they need instead of being thrown onto the streets is a future that I can get behind.
— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.
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