Archive for the ‘ Women’s Issues ’ Category

On conscience-based medical exemptions

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is currently reviewing its Human Rights Code policy on conscience-based exemptions for medical professionals, and their effect on access to medical services.

This review was sparked by a number of news reports of doctors in Ontario and Alberta refusing to prescribe birth control because of their religious beliefs. In some of those cases, patients were refused in clinics where there was only one doctor on duty.

Concurrently, south of the border, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favour of a corporation’s right to deny medical insurance to its employees when doing so would violate the owners’ religious beliefs — a case that was specifically about access to contraception. The Hobby Lobby case has been followed by several new attempts to widen the exemption, and calls to extend it to other sectors and in ways that would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT people.

These events reflect a major shift in the way that conscience rights are being seen and applied in North America.  It is my hope that the experiences of trans* people in Alberta with conscience-based medical exemptions might provide some insights for those considering a conscience policy review in Ontario.

Alberta has had a policy for some time which allows a doctor to refuse to prescribe treatments that violate their religious beliefs in non-emergency situations. However, they are required to state that the refusal is because of their religious beliefs, and to provide a timely referral for patients to someone who will provide care, so that patients still receive service and experience a minimum of undue hardship (although to be fair, having to jump through referral hoops can be considered an undue hardship of itself, especially when one factors in the difficulties in scheduling time off from work and other real life concerns).  Ontario’s policy is similar, though not identical.

Alberta’s policy was created to protect medical professionals from having to participate in any situation that might lead to an abortion.  But in the past year, there has been an upsurge of discussion about the need for a religious or conscience-based exemption in every sector and every practice.  Access to birth control is one of the pivotal issues in play in that discussion, although it is not the only one.

As an advocate for transsexual and transgender people, I’ve needed to assist a great number of people over the years who’ve been denied medical services because they’re trans* under Alberta’s conscience exemption policy.  Sometimes people have even been denied services for things like urinary tract infections, routine checkups and cases of the flu.  To be fair, the conscience exemption is not the only factor: denials are sometimes made by doctors who say they’ve never been trained in trans* health — although this complaint is made not only in regard to trans-specific health concerns, nor does there appear to be a willingness to learn from many of those doing the refusing.

Most often, trans* people who are refused care are also not provided a referral to anyone else.  This exploits the public’s unfamiliarity with this part of the law, and that they’re entitled to a referral.  It is certainly not every medical professional who refuses to assist, but it occurs frequently enough that the trans* community has had to try to keep a list of “trans-friendly” doctors — a list that is constantly plagued by doctors no longer being able to accept new patients, or making changes in their practice or habits.  I’m always happy to add doctors to the list, with the only requirement be that they adhere to the WPATH Standards of Care (which is also the policy of Alberta Health Services).  Two years ago, someone obtained a copy of our records and stormed into the offices of several listed clinics in Calgary, raising a ruckus about doctors’ willingness to treat trans* patients, and this resulted in several requests to be removed from our list.

Although commentators sometimes note theoretical possibilities like a Jehovah’s Witness practitioner denying blood transfusions, I can say from experience that conscience policies already can and do result in people being denied access to the care they need… and are not always given “timely” alternatives.

I am sensitive to a person’s right to opt out of something because their conscience, and not just a religious-based conscience.  However, in practical experience, exemptions tend to be abused, and marginalized people pay the heaviest price.  If there is to be a conscience-based exception to medical care, a province also needs to have a much better way of coordinating timely and accessible care alternatives, and better enforce the responsibility to provide those alternatives.  In Alberta, this is difficult, since there is no centralized means of communicating with medical professionals and provide some forms of training after they’re already in the field, short of making laws — so strengthening things at a policy level proves difficult.

With the recent shift of thinking among the religious right toward making provinces “abortion-free” and denying access to previously uncontroversial things like birth control, this issue will worsen in coming years.  If there is to be a conscience-based exemption to medical care, provinces need to seek a solution to the policy quandaries this creates now.  For example, if a walk-in clinic’s only physician on duty  will not prescribe contraception, then it’s worth investigating what responsibility the clinic should have in providing a doctor who will, and in a manner that suits the patient’s needs, rather than the doctor’s.

Or what responsibility the province is taking upon itself by sanctioning health care exemptions.

(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)

C-36: Conflating sex work with human trafficking

I recently asked whether the vague definition of “sexual services” and definition of the Internet as a public space could be used to make the anti-prostitution Bill C-36 ban pornography.  Regardless of how one feels about porn, such a thing would certainly require a debate, and it’s a question worth asking.

I also looked at the obvious aspects of C-36 that have sparked outrage from sex workers, and occasionally even from abolitionists.

There are further discussions as well — more concrete than speculation, but still under the surface of the legislation itself.

Conflating sex work with human trafficking

Anti-prostitution Bill C-36 explicitly puts sex work on the same footing as human trafficking and conflates the two in law.  Indeed, they have been consciously equated by Peter MacKay and by the bill’s proponents.

The rhetoric used when introducing the bill also does this, through employing a language that claims that people (particularly women) sell themselves or are sold as commodities, rather than simply selling a service.  Under this line of thinking, it is considered impossible that sex workers might retain any personal autonomy.

Human trafficking certainly exists, although not as frequently as it is often claimed (studies that claim high numbers of trafficking incidents often similarly conflate it with sex work). The fact that it happens less often does not mean that we should care less or believe that the occurrences of it are somehow less horrible — but it does justify recognizing when the scope of it has been unjustly stretched beyond what human trafficking actually is.

The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (or Trafficking Protocol) defines human trafficking as:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs….”

Human trafficking doesn’t always include border migration, and the exploitation isn’t always about the selling and buying of sex, but the consistent elements are that one person ends up controlling another, via unethically-obtained consent or no consent at all, for the purposes of exploitation.

These circumstances sometimes do occur with sex work, but they aren’t inherent to it.  Sex work does not always have elements of coercion, of control, or of vulnerability. Sex work actually includes a variety of trades, including street work, escorting, stripping, lap dancing, professional domination, massage, survival sex, porn, and more, making it difficult to generalize about it in an absolute fashion.

The Harper government (and supportive media) has had to paint sex workers, advocates and organizations as rare outliers, in order to maintain the illusion that sex work is always exploitative. A great many sex workers have a considerable degree of personal autonomy and independence.  However, those who are in exploitative circumstances are always those who are disproportionately visible, because they will justifiably make contact, seek help and make themselves visible. Unfortunately, this means that the dire circumstances experienced by those who do seek escape become interpreted as being representative of sex work as a whole.

Worse, using the term “human trafficking” interchangeably with sex work actually confuses the issue significantly, diverting funds and energy away from where it’s needed and toward combating legitimate sex work as well.  This makes it impossible to get clear and realistically comparative data, and reallocates funding away from effective anti-trafficking initiatives.  It undermines the fight against trafficking and tarnishes the organizations that try to do the needed work, making it much harder to address actual human trafficking.  And it has allowed far right moralists who are more interested in controlling peoples’ sexual habits seductively hijack the dialogue that once considered womens’ autonomy and choice to be important.

Under Bill C-36, for example, the emphasis is placed on exit services.  But victims of human trafficking have specific (and often urgent) needs that go far beyond exiting sex work.  These start with citizenship: far too often, the response to a trafficked person in Canada is to rescue them from an exploitative situation, and then deport them to the very same conditions that made them vulnerable to exploitation.  Certainly, without citizenship, access to other social services and the tools they need to begin lives free of exploitation becomes difficult or impossible.

And while sexual exploitation justifiably triggers anger and requires remedy, human trafficking also involves far more than sexual exploitation.  It is believed that there are nearly 21 million trafficked persons, worldwide, according to an estimate by the International Labour Organization.  Of these, 4.5 million are victims of sexual trafficking.  The issue of persons exploited for sexual labour is urgent, yes.  But it does not encompass the whole problem of human trafficking.  The approach of Bill C-36 allows the public to believe that we’ve addressed everything that matters.

The embarrassing fall of Somaly Mam — who resigned after questions were raised about her autobiography, tactics and alleged coaching of shocking stories about sex trafficking — should provide a strong cautionary tale about how we can sometimes react to the issue by willingly disregarding or failing to check key facts.

If sex workers did not have to feel targeted by authorities or ashamed to reveal who they were, they could in fact become key allies in detecting and identifying where and when sexual trafficking occurs.  Besides…

“Kung said the employees were required to share rooms in two five-bedroom homes owned by their boss, Tony Van Den Bosch.

“They had no privacy in the house. The owner would come in and out as he pleased and would enter people’s rooms,” Kung said.

“In addition, Kung said, the workers were asked to pay rent once at the beginning of the month, and an additional $200 “tip” on top of their monthly rent in the middle of the month, for the double-bunked rooms.

“… The employer also regularly asked the workers from Mexico for their passports and would hold them for periods of time, alleged Kung.

“Two of them were fired and sent back to Mexico after raising concerns about their working and living conditions. Two of them actually fled in the middle of the night one night because they were so afraid…”

How is sex work inherently always incontrovertibly equivalent to human trafficking, but the Harper government’s Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program not?

The paternal infantilization of women and the idealized rescue of exit services.

Bill C-36 assumes that everyone engaging in sex work is a victim. By doing so, this government ignores the experiences of people who choose to engage in sex work.  Unless there is direct force or coercion involved (which is procuring, something that was still illegal before this law was introduced), there are two intersecting factors that motivate people to engage in sex work: poverty and opportunity.  The balance between each will vary per person.

While promising to invest money in exit services, the same government fails to address one key driver — poverty — and completely disregards the other as non-existent.

Between driving wages down with anti-union policies, the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, cuts to the public sector, refusing to address economic and gender disparities…  the Harper government is a major driver of that poverty. If the choice is to earn as much in two weeks working at a McJob as one could earn in a few nights doing sex work, then that’s not really much of a choice, is it?

Certainly, there’s no talk about addressing job opportunities and wages that would provide a reasonable alternative.  Despite the stigmas, danger and even criminalization, sex work is one of the few ways that people might have to escape oppressive economic circumstances.

And by taking away any ability to work in visible spaces or safe spaces, the Harper Conservatives are driving the industry underground, creating vulnerabilities. The only thing that the government is offering is funding for exit programs.  Leave or else.  This bill does everything possible to ensure that exiting sex work is the only option.

The rescue industry

The Conservatives have pledged $20 million toward exit programs and enforcement.  It’s not known how much of that money will go to increased policing costs.

Exit programs are one area where a person really has to wonder how a law is going to be used.  Will law enforcement be used to push people into exit programs?  Will there be coercion or obligation to participate in them?  Will access to assistance or public services be conditional upon participating in an exit program?  If a person does not want to participate in an exit program, will the penalty be charges for things they would not have otherwise been punished for?  Will participation in exit programs be the only way a sex worker can avoid losing custody or visitation of their children?  Will religious institutions (similar to or allied with those who advised the bill, even) be administering these exit programs, and will proselytization be a part of the exit strategy?

Some of these questions sound appalling or absurd, but there are certainly precedents south of the border where these became the consequence of anti-prostitution laws which push exit programs.

A matter of advice

In crafting Bill C-36, there was a clear reliance by the Harper government on the advice of far right religious organizations like REAL Women of Canada and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and virtually no weight given to the people directly impacted by the legislation.

One of the organizations that stands to benefit from the $20 million that the Harper Conservatives have pledged to invest in exit programs is [free-them], which describes itself as an anti-trafficking organization.  But the organization appears to have a moralist slant that extends beyond that mandate.  When MP Joy Smith (who the organization describes as “Free-Them’s ally in fighting human trafficking”) issued a statement in support of Britain’s mandatory porn opt-in policy, [free-them] was quick to follow up with a similar statement:

“Children need to be protected from pornographic images that over time can desensitize our youth and create a false sense of sexual reality, and even lure children into a situation of exploitation that no child should ever experience. As Prime Minister Cameron clearly states, this regulation is not banning legal pornography, but rather increasing an extra level of security and protection from pornography getting into the hands and viewership of youth and children that should not be exposed to this. As adults, we have a responsibility to the young generations growing up to protect and defend children and youth…”

If it’s difficult to conflate human trafficking with all of sex work, then it’s even harder to equate it with the entirety of pornography.  Exploitation does happen in porn, yes, but in this case, there is also a highly visible contingent of participants who have been obviously not trafficked, and have relative personal autonomy.

The longer one follows the threads of Bill C-36, the clearer it becomes that it is far less about exploitation, and far more about legislating a specific moral vision.  And in the process, the issue of trafficking itself has become hijacked.

Footnote: While I had never set out to become an activist for sex workers’ rights, I’ve come to believe that the freer and more empowered a sex worker is, the less opportunity exists for exploitation, and the more opportunity there is to escape it if it happens. Criminalization achieves the opposite effect.

(crossposted to Rabble.ca.  Concerned about progressive media in Canada? Support rabble.ca)

Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act: an overview

I recently asked whether the vague definition of “sexual services” and definition of the Internet as a public space could be used to make the anti-prostitution Bill C-36 ban pornography somehow.  Regardless of how one feels about porn, such a thing would certainly require a debate, and it’s a question worth asking.

That is, however, speculative.  The bill itself contains many clearer aspects that have sparked outrage from sex workers, and occasionally even from abolitionists, as well (though the objections vary).

The Canadian government’s public consultation on sex work — which sex worker advocates felt had been slanted to try to sell the “Nordic Model” of anti-prostitution law — was reported to have shown that a majority of Canadians want the selling of sex to be legal for the sake of the people who engage in it, but a mix (slight majority) of Canadians support criminalizing the buying of sex.

Apparently Justice Minister Peter MacKay decided that meant that Canadians wanted sex work criminalized in such a way that sex workers wouldn’t always be technically charged, but it would be otherwise made totally impossible to work legally and safely.  Rather than honour the safety concerns raised by the Supreme Court of Canada, the Harper government has actually exacerbated the situation in hopes of forcing sex workers into exit programs.

“The purchase and sale of sex has never been illegal in Canada,” MacKay said explicitly. “That changes today.”

It is, of course, the government’s hope that by completely criminalizing sex work, the Supreme Court of Canada’s argument — that anti-prostitution laws do harm to sex workers by preventing them from working safely — becomes irrelevant.  Courts never concern themselves with whether circumstances are made safe enough to commit a crime.  And that’s why it has decided to criminalize the buying of sex in addition to re-criminalizing everything that was struck down (with a few narrow exemptions for sex workers themselves)… and throw in some new restrictions for good measure.

(It’s alleged that an unpublished Ipsos Reid poll reportedly contradicts this government position, but the results of that poll are being withheld)

Pivot Legal Society has condemned the bill:

“This cynical, dystopic model does not resolve the problems found by the Court in Bedford to be unconstitutional, and adds new ones such as the prohibition on advertising. The Charter rights engaged by this proposed law include life, liberty, security of the person, freedom of expression and equality. Arguably all are breached.

“This is not the “Nordic” approach, nor is it a Canadian variation on the “Nordic” approach. It is an unconstitutional variation of our broken laws that impose more danger, more criminalization, and fewer safe options, contrary to the requirement of the Supreme Court of Canada to address these dangerous and ineffective laws.

“This made in Canada model will lead to continued epidemic of violence against sex workers in Canada…”

What the bill does:

1) Sellers are not criminalized or targeted… except when they are.

It’s claimed that Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act targets buyers of sex but doesn’t target those who sell it.  That is incorrect.  Sex workers can absolutely be charged:

  • if they work in the presence of sex workers under 18 years of age — even if they’re under 18, themselves;
  • if they work at home where children reside, if it’s asserted that the children are being negatively affected (and what about having to go visit grandma all the time… is that a negative effect?) — more on this in a moment; and
  • if they communicate in “a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present,” stop traffic, etc. (the penalty for this could be up to five years in prison)

The mixed signals on charging sex workers opens up some ability for law enforcement to use the potential for charges (and the lack of clarity on what is legal) to manipulate people.  This could result in the threatening of charges in order to intimidate a person into incriminating themselves or incriminating others (perhaps even falsely, in order to escape trouble).  This lack of clarity could also be used to scare people into pleading guilty (regardless of whether it’s true) to seeming lesser charges, in order to escape risking more frightening legal possibilities.

Regardless of the exemptions included in the bill, there are still institutional barriers to keep sex workers from receiving assistance from police or communicating with them with confidence.  For example, the search and seizure powers make no exemption for sex workers themselves.  Even if they can’t be charged for advertising their own services, what’s to stop police from seizing their computers and targeting their current and past clients in one fell swoop?  It’s incredibly naive to think that the rapport between law enforcement and sex workers would be improved in any way by this law.

Could the legislation affect access to social services as well, if those services aren’t specifically exit-related? Or custody of children?  Even if a sex worker cannot be charged for advertising sexual services in a particular situation, might it still violate a lease by being classified as a criminal act?  The implications are uncertain.

2) Communication.

The law against “communicating for the purpose of…” — which put sex workers in unsafe situations by limiting their ability to screen clients and negotiate — is back, and is actually made more restrictive by applying it to “a public place, or in any place open to public view, that is or is next to a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present.” That last part is key: a minor doesn’t actually have to be present, there only needs to be an undefined reasonable expectation (and it will be up to the courts how widely that can be interpreted).  Your car could be a public place.

In the case of sex workers who have children, even if their children can be kept unaware of their parent’s pursuits and are never present when they see clients, does their home become a “public place?”

It’s still never safe for buyers to communicate to buy sex, but where does it become safe for a sex worker to communicate to sell sex? If they can only communicate from home and without the use of the Internet or public spaces, well, that certainly complicates things.  Bill C-36 distinguishes itself by targeting indoor sex work so that it becomes impossible to engage in safely, even if you’re the sex worker who is supposed to be exempt from the law.

A bar is still a public place, but it’s not “a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present.”  So it’s legal-ish or closer to legal-ish, and the penalties for anyone caught are smaller. So now, the Harper government has made sex workers safer by pushing them into darkened spaces with clients who have been drinking.

But at the same time, there is a disincentive for bar owners to allow sex workers to communicate on their premises, for fear that it could be claimed that the bar or management might be materially benefiting from the presence of sex workers in some way (i.e. increased sales and patronage).  So then there is a constant harassment of anyone in a bar who is suspected of being a sex worker.

By tactical reasoning like this, it becomes a strategic minefield in which people are forced to take more chances, and place themselves in the spaces of people they wouldn’t normally trust, simply because those people are likewise willing to take the risk of associating with them.

Communication can’t be understated.  If one can’t take the time to negotiate clearly, has to speak in code to avoid detection, and has to resort to an imply / infer scenario, then it makes it impossible to screen clients to see how agitated they might be, creates an automatic mutual distrust between workers and dates, and makes it hard to set limits about what types of sexual act one is or isn’t willing to perform.  This was a key issue at the heart of the Superior Court of Ontario and Supreme Court of Canada rulings that originally struck down the three anti-prostitution laws replaced by this bill.

3) The Bawdy-house rules.

The ban on “common bawdy-houses” is back, with the 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 targets massage parlours (if sex is exchanged) and strip clubs (if sex is exchanged).  Additionally, if a sex worker keeps a separate address to work from, it’s considered a bawdy-house. So now by law, sex workers can only work from their homes.  Because it’s oh so much safer for everyone to know where you live.

Of course, one can imagine the condemnation that’s going to be heaped upon sex working mothers who work under the same roof that their children live under, regardless of whether the kids are ever actually present when anything is happening.  But the law actually pushes them to do that.

Sex workers sometimes share a separate address, or prefer to work in places like massage parlours or strip clubs, so they can work together for mutual safety.  Under this law, that’s not a legal option.

4) What constitutes a material benefit from the sale of sex?

“Living off the avails…” returns as “receiving a material benefit that derives” from the sale of sex. It does provide an exemption (subject to interpretation) for some people who live with sex workers, provided that nothing can be construed as an exploitative situation and no drugs are provided to the sex worker:

“… evidence that a person lives with or is habitually in the company of a person who offers or provides sexual services for consideration is, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, proof that the person received a financial or other material benefit from those services…” except “in the context of a legitimate living arrangement with the person from whose sexual services the benefit is derived…”

How that will be interpreted remains to be seen.  It’s not entirely clear if this provision targets assisting arrangements from referrers, drivers, bodyguards, associates and other business partners, if something beneficial (not necessarily cash) is exchanged.  The Justice Minister says it’s up to interpretation of whether the associate is exploitative in any way.  Sometimes, the practical application of something like this is to arrest all, use the law to maximum advantage, and let the courts worry about whether or not a situation is exploitative, after the fact.

Escort agencies, massage parlours (if sex is exchanged) and strip clubs (if sex is exchanged) are all banned by this provision, with a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

5) The new ban on all advertising of sexual services

This bill reaches further than anything previous, by banning all advertising of sexual services.  Anyone who knowingly provides a space in which to advertise (whether in newspapers, online message boards, websites, or any other form of media) can face fines or imprisonment.

Beyond the obvious questions about freedom of speech, this raises other questions.  How much legal responsibility does an Internet service Provider (ISP) shoulder if sexual service advertising is accessed through its networks?  What steps does it need to do to avoid legal action, and how engaged will ISPs need to become in tracking such advertising?  Does this raise questions for other areas of privacy and freedom of speech for Canadians?  When I asked if C-36 might ban porn, one of the lines of reasoning was that the threat of legal action could push ISPs into instituting arbitrary and overly broad content filters, just to be safe.

And finally, is the Internet a public place? MacKay explicitly referred to online advertising, so that would seem to mean that it is interpreted that way in the law.  And while it’s said that sex workers would not be charged for advertising their own services, if the Internet is widely interpreted as a public place “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present,” that exemption for them might not apply to Internet advertising.

It could almost end up working like entrapment.

Tomorrow: Conflating sex work and human trafficking

(crossposted to Rabble.ca DentedBlueMercedes.  Concerned about progressive media in Canada? Support rabble.ca)

Could anti-prostitution Bill C-36 also ban porn?

One of the concerns that has been raised about Bill C-36 is that “sexual services” is not defined.

Terri Jean Bedford, one of the plaintiffs in the case that overturned the previous anti-prostitution laws, has raised this question a number of times, without receiving an answer.  A professional dominatrix’s job, after all, involves fulfilling a fantasy, and may not include any actual sex acts at all.  Does sex have to happen in order for there to have been a “sexual service?” Where is that line drawn?

It’s because of this vague nature of the terminology that some are asking if the wording could also inadvertently ban advertising and / or paying for sex toys or the services of a sex therapist.  Advertising sexual health services could also come into question.

Is porn a “sexual service?”

Is a sexual service exchanged via pornography?  It could be argued that porn acts as an intermediary, at least, so it might be a question that is subject to the interpretation of whichever judge happens to hear it.

There are people at both ends of the political spectrum who oppose pornography and would be amenable to a ban on it — from the right usually because of concerns about morality, and from the left often because of concerns about the portrayal of women and the possibility that it contributes to rape culture.  There are also opponents at both ends of the political spectrum as well, and for the purposes of this question, it is up to readers how they feel about the prospect of such a ban.  However, people of all political stripes would hopefully agree that such a sweeping form of censorship should at least require a lengthy debate.

Under the original terms of the bill, concerns about advertising sex already treads into the realm of censorship and freedom of speech.  If that is coupled with flawed and vague terminology, it’s reasonable to ask how far beyond the original intent that could be taken.

If the bill could be used to ban porn (and that question might remain entirely speculative until something actually does wind its way through the court system), all it would take is for someone wanting to close their local porn shop to try to sue them for — or push for them to be charged with — advertising sexual services.  There’s no guarantee that anyone would succeed at that, but the possibility that it might is a question worth asking.

Key mechanisms in C-36

There are mechanisms within the bill that would certainly assist such a use of the law.

The bill includes search and seizure powers for materials that are “obscene, a crime comic, child pornography, a voyeuristic recording or an advertisement of sexual services.”  To be fair, all of those items besides “advertisement of sexual services” are already listed in the Criminal Code as materials that can be seized, currently.  But aside from the obviously important proscription of child pornography, none of those other things are characteristically illegal to buy or possess anymore (in the case of voyeuristic recordings, their actionability hinges upon how the recording is obtained), and so we don’t see searches and seizure of pornography, except through some federal departments like the Canada Border Services Agency, which simply confiscates material.  However, this law does ban advertisement of sexual services outright, so there would be greater enforceability.

Additionally, for the purposes of this law at least, the Internet is considered “a public place, or in any place open to public view, that is or is next to a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” — or at least the Harper government sees this phrasing as the best mechanism to include online advertising.

With both the search-and-seizure powers and definition to include online media in the bill, even if it turned out that porn was not legally interpreted as a sexual service, C-36 still provides the structural basis needed to build an anti-porn law, with a minimal amount of effort required.

Soft censorship and stealth

Bill C-36 would allow the Harper Conservatives to institute a ban on porn without appearing to be pro-censorship.  A significant portion of the Conservative base uses freedom of speech as a rallying point, especially when it comes to divisive speech, tabloid-style and gotcha journalism, and hateful (though not necessarily legally hate) speech.  Even calling out hateful speech or non-legal consequences for speech can interpreted as censorship by this contingent.  So if the government wanted to establish a ban, it would probably need to be done by stealth, and look like an accident.

Regardless of how broadly “sexual services” is defined, the ban on advertising could conceivably be used to pressure Internet service providers (ISPs) to institute a content filter system much like MP Joy Smith had been calling for, only months ago.  That is, if ISPs are threatened with the possibility being held legally accountable for any ads obtained through their networks, a content filter then appears to be the path of least resistance.  And no matter how specific ISP programmers might try to be, content filters have a tendency to be arbitrary, overly broad, and filter unintended content, just to be safe.  Even if a solid ban cannot be accomplished, soft censorship would remain possible.

Where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present: the legal tactic

The eerie phrasing of “a place where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” first raised this question in my mind, because it sounds very much like the legal tactic used in Russia’s law banning all “homosexual propaganda” (that is, anything that portrays LGBT people positively — and I’m not speaking hyperbolically when I say that).  When that law passed, the Canadian and American religious right applauded the move, and began debating ways to bring such a law to North America.  Although it could be a haphazard trek from point A to B, each win that occurs in between provides red meat to key elements of the social Conservative base, and injects legislation into the bedrooms of the nation.

The Department of Justice Public Consultation on sex work ends Monday March 17th.

The Department of Justice Public Consultation on sex work closes March 17, 2014.

Although the questions appear to be stacked, it’s important that people who support decriminalization participate.  There’s certainly no shortage of people filling out the forms and calling for new criminalization.  The questionnaire is here, and Maggie’s Toronto provides some advice on answering positively, here.

If you’re still on the fence about whether you support decriminalization, then please consider answering questions 1-5 with the following:

“I decline to answer from my own experience, but instead call upon the Harper Government to make it a priority to ensure that any decision on sex work be made in full consultation with sex workers themselves, who face the greatest consequences of any law.  It is of particular importance that people who are currently engaged in sex work be consulted and that their experiences be given greater weight.  The recent Supreme Court ruling made it clear that workers’ safety and right to self-determination cannot be compromised.”

Need more convincing?  At RankAndFile.ca, there’s an interesting discussion about how decriminalization along with a union-style approach can lead to much improved conditions for sex workers:

Some of the public discussion of the role of sex workers in the economy has likened sex workers to small business owners or entrepreneurs; they offer a service often as independent contractors. For many sex workers, this is the case: they negotiate directly with their clients on services and payments, they deal with the management of the finances of their work, they hire and fire driving, security, or other staff. Other sex workers don’t own anything and are employees with employers. These workers may be misclassified as independent contractors in their workplaces, but labour and feminist activists should not be fooled by this common attempt to limit workers’ rights by calling them something they are not like taxi drivers and couriers.

I am not a sex worker and I am not pointing to this distinction to buy into any attempts to divide sex workers in the fight to access basic rights and better occupation health and safety standards. Instead, I think the distinction is important, because it illustrates that the labour movement could have a very specific role in improving working conditions for sex workers and creating a greater balance of power between sex workers and their employers, namely by helping these sex workers organize into unions…

Here are my comments to the Department of Justice consultation:

1. Do you think that purchasing sexual services from an adult should be a criminal offence? Should there be any exceptions? Please explain.
Comment: No. An environment in which a buyer is criminalized is still a criminalized environment, and sex workers are then pushed into unsafe situations for the sake of their livelihood. Clients are not going to feel comfortable taking the time to negotiate, and this compromises safety. It also fosters a poisonous social climate for people who engage in sex work, driving workers underground, making it difficult for them to access non-judgmental health and social services, and creating a barrier of distrust between them and authorities.
2. Do you think that selling sexual services by an adult should be a criminal offence? Should there be any exceptions? Please explain.
Comment: No. There are existing laws that address coercion (procuring), underage prostitution and human trafficking. Beyond these points, focus should be on a person’s safety, their autonomy and empowering them to better their lives however they see reasonable. Sex workers gravitate to this work because of either poverty or opportunity, and the greatest positive impact would be to address the poverty that drives the more negative of scenarios.
3. If you support allowing the sale or purchase of sexual services, what limitations should there be, if any, on where or how this can be conducted? Please explain.
Comment: There should be no laws targeting sex work. Any legal discussions should be done with extensive consultation with and consideration of sex workers.
4. Do you think that it should be a criminal offence for a person to benefit economically from the prostitution of an adult? Should there be any exceptions? Please explain.
Comment: There are already procuring laws still on the books which address coercive circumstances and human trafficking. Beyond these, there should not be any laws criminalizing economic earnings from sex work. In other countries, these laws are often unreasonably abused to target sex workers, their spouses, their children, their roommates and more.
5. Are there any other comments you wish to offer to inform the Government’s response to the Bedford decision?
Comment: This consultation needs to consider the experiences of sex workers, particularly those who are still working and seeking to make a safe life for themselves. The Bedford decision clearly showed how criminalization harms sex workers, and the Nordic form of criminalization simply re-establishes the status quo. I would like to see a Canadian model that focuses on sex worker input, and protects, respects and fulfills sex workers’ human and labour rights.
6. Are you are writing on behalf of an organization? If so, please identify the organization and your title or role:
Comment: I am writing as an independent individual, and as someone who has experience in sex work at different times in my life, and with the ability to reflect on and contrast two very different sets of circumstances.

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)

Janice Raymond, and Healing Old Wounds

This post is a personal reflection on Janice Raymond’s visit to Vancouver during a memorial for the victims of the massacre of women at L’École Polytechnique, which took place in Montreal 24 years ago.  For an overview of the controversy, why Janice Raymond’s presence (as well as some other aspects of that day’s program) drew anger from trans and sex work communities, and the different facets to that situation, please refer to my article at Rabble.  What follows is my personal reflection, recorded separately.

This blog post was originally going to be something very different, a personal recollection of how Janice Raymond’s writings had personally impacted me, how to heal from that, and the larger question of how to heal the old wounds that exist between trans and womens’ movements (a question that has been heavy on my mind over the past while).  After the publication of my article about her appearance at a memorial in Vancouver, the response to that article showed me that the former is something I don’t have the luxury of time to dwell on just yet, and the latter question is clearly more urgent.

A few of the responses accused me of having an agenda when I wrote the piece, Memorial draws controversy over invitation of speaker Janice Raymond, probably because I (as acknowledged in my bio at the end) have a trans history, myself.  In all honesty, my aim in writing it was to dig into a rather complex situation, be as objective as possible, and present several different points of view in a way that was true to the speakers and independent of myself.  Along the way, it meant examining a number of things, including the histories of Janice Raymond and the event sponsor that invited her, Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR); the use of the tragic memorial to promote a sex work abolition agenda that some felt was unrelated to the tragedy being commemorated; the trans and sex work communities’ response, and the complexities of responding while also not intruding on the larger context of a memorial.  If there was any take-away that I wanted readers to have, it would be to ask questions that might lead to the aforementioned healing.  A good journalist leaves the end response up to the reader, though, and the response I heard was unexpected.

What I didn’t expect was the visceral reaction that readers would have both to quotations of Raymond’s writing, and to the event sponsor’s policy on trans women.  To me, those things had been long-known issues.  Raymond’s book was first published in 1979, and the way it and her paper “Technology on the Social and Ethical Aspects of Transsexual Surgery“ were used to cut health care funding and close gender clinics are a matter of public record (although while looking for a link, I discovered that those events of the 1980s are better remembered by trans bloggers than by anyone else.  There are few, if any, people who are considered more controversial to the trans community than Janice Raymond.

Regarding the exemption of trans women from VRR’s primary services, I’d heard about this sporadically for years, and Vancouverites were still periodically tweeting upset about it before it was announced that VRR would be inviting Raymond to speak there.  So to me, this also seemed a long-known and ongoing concern: that while VRR will ensure that anyone facing an urgent emergency will be helped by referring them elsewhere, VRR will not provide the core of their services (shelter, counseling) to trans women. This exclusion can be traced all the way back to the 12-year Nixon v RR legal dispute, in which the Vancouver Rape Relief collective won the right to choose who could be a member and participant in the collective, even if that selection was made out of the belief that trans women aren’t women.

What I gleaned from interviewing VRR’s Hilla Kerner was the encouraging information that the views of the collective vary quite a bit on trans issues.  When I asked her about the exclusion, she sounded possibly regretful, perhaps uncomfortably embarrassed, and trying to rationalize the exclusion in a way that sounds reasonable if you don’t think about it too much:

“I’ll say it the other way.  There will not be a situation that someone is not safe in calling us, in which we would not help them to get safe.  It has nothing to do with who we are or what we do. It’s a basic human compassion.  To all people.  On the other hand, our core service is based on peer counseling and consciousness-raising and we’re only going to work with people, in this case, with women-born-women, who share the same experience.  And I think that transgender people who this model is appealing to them and want to have what we have, I think that the rationale from that will be that if you want to operate a consciousness raising / peer counseling -based service, probably a service that is designed by a transgender and operated by transgender and support and offer the peer counseling to other transgender who have a similar journey in life… because it’s a concept of consciousness-raising in a peer counseling context.”

But to Rabble readers, apparently, the exclusion of trans women from VRR services was a mostly new and shocking piece of information.

And that’s the first problem with wanting to heal a division of this sort, when that old division is still being allowed to persist in the form of policy.  Healing starts with talking about an issue, but if that issue is entrenched in current policy, doing so sometimes threatens to reopen old wounds.  Yet talk we must… and ask questions.

Part of what led me to believe that the exclusionary policy would not be shocking was that VRR’s website still documents some of its members’, supporters’ and like-minded activists’ past views toward trans people, such as Sheila Jeffreys’ assertions that “from a feminist perspective… transsexualism should be seen as a violation of human rights,” and compared the availability of genital reassignment surgery to lobotomy, which trans people should be saved from, for their own sake: “The mutilation of healthy bodies and the subjection of such bodies to dangerous and life-threatening continuing treatment violates such people’s rights to live with dignity in the body into which they were born.”  There is one essay on the website which talks about building bridges (while retaining the systemic exclusion, of course), but relies on one trans woman’s assertion that: “Well, let’s be clear on one thing from the start. As to M to F transsexuals, we can never be real women,” and “demanding equal treatment is not acceptable or productive…”

Most of those documents date from around 2000 to 2002, after the B.C. Supreme Court’s ruling in Nixon v. RR, but before the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the case (thus making the last ruling stand).  With websites, things often get posted and forgotten, only to need questioning years later.

Times have changed, and so has our collective understanding of trans people and trans issues.  It’s time to question these old attitudes, but that requires unearthing them again.  That’s not an easy thing to do, apparently, without having the reaction turn to anger, instead of resolution and healing… which take much more mutual effort.  But I believe that the focus needs to be kept on the latter as much as possible.

Perhaps before we can heal the rifts between collective movements, we need to try to heal the way we talk about them.  And each other.  As one interested party, I’m still trying to find what that way is.

The question comes at a time when something being called “trans-exclusionary radical feminism” (TERF), a fringe offshoot of feminism largely inspired by Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys, is attempting to make a comeback.  While adherents have reopened some of those old wounds elsewhere, the philosophy doesn’t really resonate with mainstream feminism, which understands that division and demonization have rarely been good ways to build movements; that oppression has always been a poor way to fight oppression.

More important to remember, of course, is that there are many areas where the forms of oppression we face overlap.  Misogyny is a significant portion of what makes up transphobia, for example, because it is the perceptively non-masculine aspect of trans people that the cis (non-trans) public most reacts to in hatred.  Although much of the TERF critique of trans politics centers upon the possibility that trans people may reinforce an oppressive gender binary, the truth is that trans people are demonized in the rest of society exactly because they call that binary into question, are uncertainly in-or-out of that binary, blur its edges and raise challenging questions about sex, gender and human existence.  These kinds of overlap are completely missed when a policy of exclusion assumes that poverty, inequity, vulnerability and rape are somehow irrevocably different experiences simply because one had been born or socialized as male.

But we need to strive for that healing, especially if social movements want to transcend their own self-imposed boundaries and bring about true lasting change.  Healing and building critical mass go hand in hand.  As long as activism requires thinking in terms of colonies (even if umbrella-like), rather than in terms of alliances and intersections — ownership, rather than solidarity — it will be forever fractured and expending its valuable energy on policing its boundaries and propagating oppression — not on dismantling it.

And when I say all of this, I’ve not forgotten the other aspect of VRR’s controversy, surrounding sex work.  If anything, the discussion about feminism, transfeminism and the old wounds from that conflict serves as a cautionary tale, to question one’s activism, lest it do damage to sex workers, and this entire situation be revisited again in another form, in another ten years.

Healing should be preferable by far, over anger and exclusion.

For a case in point, this entire discussion began within the context of a memorial for the victims of the massacre at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal 24 years ago.  It has to be one of the most vivid examples of sheer hatred on historic record, and was undertaken by a man who does not deserve to be named, and who specifically targeted women, claiming he was fighting feminism.  That action is a deep scar in the psyche of Canadian women (and women worldwide).

The most disturbing thing that could come out of the controversy of the past weekend is if the tragedy of the École Polytechnique massacre becomes forgotten, turned into an opportunity for three communities that should be natural allies — the womens’ movement, the sex workers’ rights movement, and the trans rights movement — to instead do violence to each other.

(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)

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