Archive for the ‘ Sex Positivity ’ Category

Could Canada’s Anti-Sex Work Bill C-36 Also Stifle LGBT Speech?

Slightly over a week ago, Canada introduced legislation to replace the anti-prostitution laws that had been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Conservative government has been trying to race Bill C-36 through both the House and the Senate simultaneously, at breakneck speed.  But the text of the bill has raised questions about its constitutionality.  Sex workers, mainstream media and even many Nordic model proponents and abolitionists agree that it places sex workers in even greater danger than the previous laws did.

But is there also a poison pill within the legislation that could be used to stifle LGBT and sex-positive speech?

Firstly, here is what the dubiously-named “Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” does:

  • It re-criminalizes communicating for the purpose of commercial sex.  While there is said to be an exemption for the sex worker themselves, that exemption only applies if the communication is not in a public place and/or not “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” (a minor doesn’t actually have to be present), and not in the presence of another sex worker under the age of 18 (one controversy has arisen because underage sex workers can be charged if they work together for safety).  The law had been struck down previously because it put sex workers in unsafe situations by limiting their ability to screen clients, and negotiate what they were willing and unwilling to do.
  • It re-criminalizes the “common bawdy-house,” defined as a place “for the practice of acts of indecency, a place that is kept or occupied or resorted to by one or more persons.” This criminalizes massage parlours and strip clubs, if commercial sex occurs on their premises, and also prevents sex workers from having their own (or collective) space away from home to meet with clients.  The bawdy-house law had been previously struck down because it prevented sex workers from working collectively indoors.
  • It re-criminalizes “living off the avails…” (as “receiving a material benefit that derives” from the sale of sex). It does provide an exemption (subject to interpretation) for some roommates, spouses and children who live with sex workers, provided that nothing can be construed as an exploitative situation and no drugs are provided to the sex worker.  This also criminalizes escort agencies, and it is unclear how liable referrers, drivers, bodyguards, associates and other business partners could be.  This had also been previously struck down because it prevented sex workers from working together or making business arrangements that improve their safety and circumstances.
  • It now officially criminalizes the purchase of sex.  This is new (previously, it had been legal but associated activities were illegal), and it’s because of this that people are claiming the law is based on the Nordic model of prostitution laws, which aim to end demand while supposedly not targeting sex workers themselves — but Canada’s law goes very clearly beyond that point in several ways.  While many are claiming that this law will inevitably be struck down as unconstitutional, the Harper government’s gambit strategy is to criminalize sex work, so that it is no longer legally relevant whether the laws make it unsafe.
  • Something else that is entirely new is that the law criminalizes advertising “sexual services.”  Newspapers and websites are legally liable if commercial sex advertisements are found within their publications, and consequences can include fines or imprisonment — again with an exemption for the sex workers themselves, provided it is not in a public place and/or “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present….” Weirdly, it appears that the Internet may be defined as a place where persons under the age of 18 can be reasonably expected to be present, for the purposes of this bill.

“Sexual services” is not defined, and I have asked elsewhere if this term could eventually be stretched in such a way that it ultimately bans porn.  The bill contains extensive search and seizure powers that at the very least provides all the legal teeth that such a ban would need.  Others have also asked if the vague nature of this term could be used to target sexual health services, sex-positive counseling, sex toys and more.

If the phrase “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” is reminiscent of Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” law, that may be by design — Canada’s criminalization of sex work owes more to Russia’s anti-prostitution laws than to the Nordic model.

(If anyone is interested in background of these specifics, I have posts at Rabble.ca about what the bill explicitly does, and how the bill makes a seriously flawed and damaging conflation between sex work and human trafficking.)

The Poison Pill

The new criminalization of “sexual service” advertising, however, is especially concerning.  Given the way that print and online publications are to be held liable for commercial sex advertising, there are serious implications for Canadians’ freedom of speech.  Beyond the obvious loss of advertising revenues that an LGBT publication might endure, there could also be wider-spread censorship if that legal liability also extends to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), for any such advertisements that could be found on their networks.

The question is not as absurd as it sounds.  It was only last July that Conservative MP Joy Smith loudly cheered Britain’s new law which required ISPs to institute a content filtering system requiring Britons to opt in if they want to be able to access anything deemed to be obscene or pornographic.  At the time, she had promised to flag this for the party to make a top priority, she said she was absolutely certain that the Prime Minister would be interested in taking action, and then nothing else has ever been said publicly about it.  Meanwhile, Joy Smith has been the Harper Conservatives’ most vocal proponent of Bill C-36, and given many comments by her Conservative Party colleagues, it would seem that she also had a hand in drafting the bill and / or lobbying for it among Members of Parliament.  And the only groups that have been very happy with Bill C-36 have been a number of religious groups, who seem to be the only consultants that were listened to.

Filters have caused minor controversies in Canada before, such as when Tim Hortons had to apologize for blocking DailyXtra from WiFi users.  However, they’ve not improved very much, over time, and have never been applied in a global fashion.

If ISPs are legally liable for (or could be threatened with legal liability for) advertisements of sexual services found on their networks under the terms of C-36, then out of necessity and self-preservation, ISPs would need to institute a content filtering system, nationwide.  Unlike Britain’s, there may not be an opt-in alternative.  This would be doubly reinforced if pornography were deemed a “sexual service” (i.e. by acting as an intermediary) at some point.

Where this becomes especially a concern for free speech is that content filters are incredibly arbitrary, and any filter system designed to effectively intercept commercial sex advertising would inevitably be overly broad.

The result of the filters implemented in Britain has been a deliberately quiet reduction in access to a great many things:

“The filters block a wide variety of content, from hardcore porn to extremist political sites… those “porn blockers” have already proven to be ineffective, blocking plenty of harmless sites and failing to tell the difference between sex education forums and porn. In one case, a domestic abuse helpline was blocked as inappropriate material, while many actual porn sites are still accessible through the filters.”

Back in January, The Guardian‘s Laurie Penny asserted that blocking more than porn was both the intent and the inevitable consequence of the government’s content filtering initiative.  Casualties of the filter system had included “helplines like Childline and the NSPCC, domestic violence and suicide prevention services.”  The New Statesman reported in December that one ISP advertised that its filters would block gay and lesbian content:

“BT have since reworded this description to remove the ‘gay and lesbian’ reference, but given that their filtering is provided by an unnamed “third party supplier” it seems highly unlikely that the filter itself has changed overnight – merely the description.”

What is and isn’t allowed still can’t be determined except through trial and error.  The Cameron government had to draw up a whitelist to force-allow sites that have been noticed to have inadvertently run afoul of the censor.  But the scope of the filters has grown since its initial introduction to also include discussions deemed politically radical — an addition stated to be because of the possibility of the propagation of terrorism.

While a C-36 inspired filter system would operate differently because of what it’s intended to block — advertisements of sexual services, rather than pornography — that doesn’t mean that the filters would be any less clumsy.  While search terms like “escort” would be natural flags for a filter system, ISPs that are worried about legal repercussions would necessarily include a wider array of tags, to try to prevent anyone from getting around the filters.   Given the subjective nature of the term “sexual services,” something that’s open to wide interpretation, this could result in the “just in case” mentality, where businesses and individuals apply the rule in an overly broad way, to avoid any possible complaints or legal liabilities. And then there’s the problem of filtering images, which don’t of themselves have keywords other than the descriptions assigned to them.

Given the avid support that MP Joy Smith has shown to both C-36 and content filtering — as well as the Bill’s obvious pandering to far right groups that have called for a Canadian equivalent to a Russian-style “homosexual propaganda” law — it’s a reasonable question to ask.

Canadians concerned about this possibility can contact their MP (who can be determined through a search on the parl.gc.ca main page), and civilly but clearly ask for assurance that the ban on sexual service advertising in C-36 could not be used in this manner.  They’re also encouraged to find out more about what the bill does, and voice their opposition or their concerns about how this affects sex workers.  They should CC their message to Minister of Justice Peter MacKay, and if their Member of Parliament is a Conservative, they might also want to copy an interested member of the opposition, such as Françoise Boivin (NDP), Sean Casey (Lib.) or Elizabeth May (Greens).  This must be done quickly, however.

Bill C-36 will be voted on at Second Reading on Monday June 16th, after Question Period at 3:00pm.  From there, it could proceed to Third (and final) Reading, or to a committee stage for amendments (although it appears the Conservatives prefer to pass it as soon as possible).

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

Across the left divide over sex work.

I’m putting on my op-ed hat for this.  The following draws from my own history, but I think it helps provide some insight into the left-wing divide over sex work.  I’m skipping over this very quickly, and I’m sure I’ll probably forget some important distinctions and nuances, so bear with me.

This is two parts in one: a personal experience for context, and then some important distinctions about the divisions among the left and among womens’ rights groups over sex work.

A Personal Experience: A Preface

It takes a certain kind of person to be able to do sex work, and that person isn’t me.  It consumes a lot of personal and emotional energy (which, when compounded with the social stigma, is probably why drug use becomes common, I believe).  It’s fine if you’re the ebullient sort who knows how to recoup and restore that energy, but I’m not — I’m actually a recluse by nature.  Nevertheless, I did sex work at two different periods of my life, and in two very different sets of circumstances.

The first time, I engaged in street-level work at the age of twenty, and it was awful.  Back then, I worked as a male-bodied person for male clients, and was engaging in sex work due to poverty, limited options and desperation. It was complicated by my own gender identity conflict, which caused serious personal issues with my body, as well as an awkward interpersonal dynamic with dates that did not fit my inner self (for one example, nearly everything my dates were attracted to were things I hated). Worse, street-level work is undeniably one of the hardest forms of sex work, with a particular moment-to-moment vulnerability, and the knowledge that no one would be on your side if something went wrong — not police, not friends, probably not family… you’re completely alone.  And it was all too clear to the people around you who you were, and those people consequently made it all too clear what they thought of you.  The street is not a place for pride and a sense of self worth.  If it had been my only experience, then I might have thought differently about sex work.

In my later thirties, out of necessity (a sudden loss of an income while early into gender transition, making it particularly tough to find new work), I did some escorting to make ends meet.  This time, it was quite different, working as a trans woman available to males who were at varying states of self-acceptance, and who were variously straight (or mostly so), queer and/or occasionally pre-trans themselves (that is to say, people who were a form of trans* but not yet comfortable with that or not yet decided on a course of action).  At this time, interpersonal dynamics were different because I was finally who I felt I was supposed to be… and I was at far more peace with my body, even though there would still be some closure to achieve.  I was more mature, and had different expectations.  Additionally, escorting is more often date-like, with more substance and respect, and occurs mostly outside the view of condemning eyes.  But what really stood out from the contrast between the two experiences was the difference in the amount of control I had over my surroundings and my own destiny — my autonomy.

The contrasting differences between those experiences revealed a lot to me about sex work.  When I worked mostly from a position of poverty and survival, I was mostly helpless to the world around me, felt trapped, and would more or less have been easy prey, had I met the wrong person.  When escorting, I was afforded more control of my surroundings, better ability to screen people, the opportunity to negotiate what I would and wouldn’t do, and the ability to quit when I wanted to. Having some sense of personal power over my life made a tremendous difference, and actually resulted in work that I could enjoy at times, personal energy issues notwithstanding.

There could have been a lot more autonomy, though: I still had to worry about police and how an arrest would affect my life; communicating was still risky, and a lot of negotiation was skipped over in the name of “discretion”; I still realized that if something went wrong, I couldn’t turn to the authorities and rely on them for help; I was still concerned for how the attitudes toward sex workers could poison my interactions with the people I needed for support.  Decriminalization on its own does not fix all of these things, but it now seems to me to be a necessary step toward doing so.  I can’t see how it would be possible to reduce the stigma that people experience, if they’re still treated as though their livelihoods are illegal… or in the case of the Nordic model, if they still need to operate under that pretext for the sake of their clients.

This contrast also drove home just how diverse sex work really is.  It’s impossible to assess all sex work as a whole, since the everyday realities vary so completely from one kind to another.  Acting in porn is far different from street-level work, which is far different from escorting, from stripping, massage, professional domination, etc.

The reasons that people might engage in sex work also vary, but I’ve tended to compare and contrast them between terms of poverty and opportunity.  A person’s ability to be satisfied with their life in sex work — and to leave whenever they choose — is directly related to how much personal autonomy and agency they retain.  There are still other factors that can affect a person’s ability to be self-determining, but taking the criminalization and institutional antipathy out of the equation is a tremendous start.  And because a person becomes more empowered and has institutional resources they could theoretically turn to, it also helps reduce the manner, extent and ways in which they can be personally exploited.

These are the contrasting experiences from which I look at the issue of sex work, and the division among the political left, over it.

Across the Left Divide

It’s important to acknowledge that neither decriminalization nor “abolition” (which is probably a misnomer, since it wouldn’t completely eradicate sex work) will eliminate risk, nor will either of them completely eliminate the fact that exploitation occurs. This is important, because abolitionists will often point to the fact that a risk still exists as evidence that decriminalization fails, while erasing the fact that the same is true of abolition… and that the risk may in fact even be compounded by abolition-focused laws.

In a decriminalized environment, there are greater options, and more unconditional support for a person if they are wronged and seek help (although social attitudes toward sex workers can still be a barrier).  Likewise, there is far less deterrent for a person to report exploitation if they are aware of it occurring. Harm is reduced through decriminalization simply by the virtue that it empowers people (well, more accurately, it eliminates much of the disempowerment that anti-prostitution laws institutionalize — it would take more to actually empower).

And an empowered person has greater freedom to choose (or create) less exploitative circumstances.

But I think where the divide among the political left and among feminists (and womens’ rights supporters under any other label) is resides in whether someone sees a sex worker’s autonomy as the desirable endpoint.  Is it enough to place people in a position where they can better determine their own destiny?  Or does government have a responsibility to eliminate all the variables, in order to save the few who might still find themselves in miserable circumstances — even if it increases the hardship and risk for everyone else?  That is the question.

My belief is that government cannot possibly eliminate those variables, and it’s far more practical to give individuals the power they need to address their own needs based on their circumstances.  What is needed is the freedom to communicate, to reduce harms and stigma, and to form independent support organizations that are worker-focused and better positioned to see and address them… something people are not very free to do in the current social climate.

The debate is further confounded (possibly deliberately) by the ever-increasing conflation between sex work and human trafficking, which are actually two very different issues.  Equating the two is a serious derailment of the issue of actual human trafficking, by exploiting a real and urgent problem to attack a tangential population, and divert the funds that could have been used to address actual coercion, abduction and exploitation, directing them instead toward initiatives that will not provide any significant help to those who are genuinely trafficked.

This conflation occurs because the language from abolitionists deliberately equates sex workers with bought-and-sold commodities, portraying transactional sex as though it is the person themselves who is for sale, rather than the service the sex worker provides.  The language that assumes that one is a traded product during commercial sex is understandably enraging.  It would be natural to be infuriated about sex work if that were really the case.  And this is often the way that abolitionists frame the discussion: as though prostitution sells people.  In reality, sex workers sell an experience, from which a they ultimately walk away, with their capacity to direct their own lives intact and their ownership still in their own hands (as much as is possible for any of us, at least).

It is through this framing that the personhood of sex workers is erased, and replaced with a kind of infantilized victimhood in which sex workers are simply helpless and in need of rescue… even from themselves, perhaps.  It is by portraying the worker as the commodity that is for sale, rather than the service they provide, that people can then argue that a worker’s consent is not actually valid consent.  Individual will has ceased to matter.

Of course, there will always be a segment of people who view all sex work and anything that conforms to sexual stereotyping (perhaps even sexuality itself) as violence toward women.  For those people, if they can’t see how patriarchal and patronizing — let alone disempowering — criminalization (which is a regulation of mostly female bodies and mostly female choices) is, then there’s probably no common ground on which we can meet.  I know that there are some very painful experiences that lead people to those conclusions, and I don’t mean to be insensitive to that.  However, my experiences simply lead me to different conclusions.

And while criminalizing the buyer might *sound* like a reasonable middle ground, I really can’t see how it would change the need to work and communicate out of view and in vulnerable or exploitative spaces.  I also can’t see how it would change the level of respect in the dialogue about women (and men, and anyone in between) in the sex trade… other than continually casting them in this two-dimensional role of helpless victim.  In reality, though, criminalization of the buyer is still criminalization.  There’s still the need to work in secrecy, to protect one’s livelihood, to take chances, and to distrust and avoid contact with the authorities at all cost.  For the life of me, as someone who has done this, I cannot see how the Nordic model would be any worthwhile change from the three unreasonable laws that were struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.  Rather, it is simply a more stealthy way to repackage those same harms and maintain them for the ten or more years that it will take to strike down this new face given to the status quo.

Abolition makes the classic mistake of addressing a symptom rather than the primary cause.  Face it: when the choice is between $1000 a night or $1000 a month at McStarbuMart, that’s not much of a choice.  As long as this is the reality, and as long as there is no political will to address poverty and the enormous gulf that has manifested between accessible incomes and life-sustaining incomes, there will be people who feel a need to engage in commercial sex.

I find that the left-wing and feminist divides over sex work boil down to a question of whether a person believes that a person’s right to personal empowerment and autonomy (including over their body and their life decisions) should be paramount, or if the government’s responsibility to actively protect women should be seen as justification to trump this, regardless of the sex worker’s will and the effect on their surroundings, their lives and their future.

What is being attempted with the Nordic system of criminalizing buying is to simply try to either undermine the argument surrounding a woman’s right to choose, or to allay those concerns.  And for those who don’t look beyond the surface, there may be the temptation to believe that.  Don’t you believe it.

The Federal Government’s slanted public consultation is online until March 17th.  Tell them in no uncertain terms that the consultation needs to consider the experiences of sex workers, particularly those who are still working and seeking to make a safe life for themselves.

(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)

About that “GID is removed from the DSM” thing…

Oh god, please make it stop.

Yesterday morning, I woke up to a rash of headlines proclaiming that transexuality was no longer considered “disordered” by the American Psychiatric Association. This morning, it grew worse, with a rash of panicked emails from people who were wondering if their medical access would be jeopardized, after some LGBT and even mainstream news sites and blogs reported this as meaning that “Gender Identity Disorder” (GID) will no longer be considered in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), or had been “removed” from the DSM altogether.  No, it hasn’t.  That’s not true at all.

I hate to be a wet blanket, but the change that’s being heralded is mostly just in name, and “Gender Dysphoria” remains in the DSM — and in the “Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders” category (although that name may change too), if I recall correctly, of a manual that governs mental health.  The parallel being drawn to when homosexuality was removed from the DSM wildly overstates this change.

And because it has not been completely removed (something I’ve previously cautioned about the risk of doing too hastily, regarding both the DSM and ICD volumes), peoples’ medical processes are not affected in any way.  The panic I’ve heard from some people wondering if their medical treatment will be hindered is unfounded.

There is something to see here, though:

There is a positive in this, though, in that people are finally paying attention to the problems associated with another DSM category: Transvestic Disorder (formerly Transvestic Fetish). When the alarm was raised about Drs. Ray Blanchard and Ken Zucker having administrative roles in the DSM revision, that protest lost some steam when the APA announced that Zucker would be in an oversight position rather than hands-on, and Blanchard would be working on a separate category not related to GID (Paraphilias). Some of our allies decided we were making much ado about nothing.  Now, people are perhaps realizing the problem with that arrangement, in that it gave Blanchard full license to develop Transvestic Disorder (TD / TF).

A few trans advocates (including Kelley Winters, Julia Serano, and myself) have cautioned about the problems with regard to TD / TF and what could happen if that diagnosis is expanded in scope while GID diminishes or is eliminated.  Well, indications thus far are that Transvestic Disorder has certainly been expanded, and evolved to encompass Ray Blanchard’s theory of “autogynephilia” as a subcategory (plus the addition of “autoandrophilia,” to make it an equal-opportunity pathology).  All that anyone really needs to do to technically qualify for this diagnosis, as Serano notes, is to be “sexually active while wearing clothing incongruent with their birth-assigned sex.”

This diagnosis sexualizes and invalidates, and frankly, it has become a wide, sweeping pathology encompassing a significant amount of non-harmful behaviour.

Backgrounder: The Little Case Study That Autogynephilia Forgot

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

Coming out for reproductive justice.

Today is International Womens’ Day.  It’s a day to stand together, to call for rights when they’re lacking, and to defend rights when they’re in danger.

And there is some danger at the door, with a declaration yesterday that the “perfect storm” makes the perfect moment for the U.S. crusade against womens’ reproductive rights to be brought to Parliament and across Canada.  In the U.S., most supporters of reproductive justice were silent in hopes that the issue would abate, only to see wave after wave crash over state after state, and an environment fomented where it has become detrimental or even toxic to be visibly supportive of womens’ rights in the equation.  That is how change happens without reopening the “debate.

But today should also be positive.  And that’s why I’m taking the moment to come out in favour of womens’ reproductive rights, and encouraging others to do the same.  Where womens’ rights failed in 2012 was that — aside from those few who’ve been working openly for reproductive justice already — people were shamed and intimidated away from defending them.  The fewer the voices who speak, the fewer the people who are willing to.  And so I’m adding my voice.  While I’ve not been personally touched by a life situation where some of these questions come up, I recognize the need to work toward an environment where those who have can speak without fear.

I feel it’s imperative to take this position.  Here are just a few of the reasons why. Continue reading

Learn about gay and trans kids? No. Have them protest abortion? Okay.

A group of parents in B.C. are adamantly opposed to the Burnaby school district enacting an LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying policy.  Catholic school districts in Ontario want to ban rainbows and Gay-Straight Alliances.  Charles Adler is worried that a calendar that is a teachers’ reference (and notes the Transgender Day of Remembrance) might cause kids to become “transgender hookers,” and Charles McVety is warning that teaching students that trans youth exist will confuse them about their gender.  After the National Post apologized for McVety’s ad, the Toronto Sun ran it to make a point about free speech, and it’s now running in video form on SunTV.  McVety’s contention that LGBT-inclusive and -positive sex education “is truly sexually violating little boys and girls” is now being repeated (with nicer wording) as the conclusion of National Post columnists.  Teach kids to coexist with gay and trans kids?  You can’t do that.

Teach them to march in anti-abortion protests?  Sure, why not?

According to the Winnipeg Free Press, students are being given full credits for doing so, and principal David Hood is considering making it an official school activity. Continue reading

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