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)

Keeping safe at the corner of trans* and BDSM

Update: There is more information emerging that indicates that this specific case may not be what is claimed The following advice applies regardless, but keep this in mind so as to not make any judgments about any of the people involved until more clear information is available.


 

Somewhere at the intersection of trans* and BDSM, this happened:

“Three people have been arrested for allegedly keeping a transgender woman as a slave in the Ajax area of Natchitoches Parish.

“… NPSO received a report Saturday night from a Robeline assistant town marshal that he had come in contact with a female who had a logging chain wrapped around her near the intersection of Interstate 49 and Louisiana 6 West near Natchitoches…”

Media and law enforcement are making some judgments, and I’m tempted to come to a few conclusions of my own, but either way, it’s clear that something started out consensual and then went very wrong.  It’s not clear where that happened, how far the negotiation went, when the consent ended, or what broke down, and it’s not possible to know those things from the information we have.  Beyond that, it’s all speculative, and isn’t going to help anyone to comment on these people or this specific case.

However, I do have readers at a similar intersection, and there are some larger general comments that need to be made.  While trans* people who are attracted to BDSM can be at either end of the dominant – submissive (D/s) spectrum, many of these points will be about self-care and safety for the latter, who are more vulnerable in the equation.

This has raised some judgments about what would compel a person to consent to a situation like this, about depression, self-image, self-worth.  I hesitate to make judgments, because those things can be factors, but they’re not necessarily the entire story.  I believe that individuals can have inherent D/s needs too (and no, they don’t split along gender lines), so I caution about oversimplifying things.

No matter where you fall on a D/s spectrum, you have a right to (and a need for) personal autonomy and personal fulfillment. You have to first have personal power in order to be able to surrender it to someone else.  You are not a sacrificial lamb.  If you feel like the latter, you have some soul-searching to do.

If you feel worthless in your life, or helpless, then it’s always best to look in, discover who you are, the value you have and what you need in your life before looking outward.  It’s not right for you (or fair to anyone else) to put all of that on someone else.  You should have this sorted out before committing to a serious relationship of this intensity.

As much as you might want to trust someone else and put yourself in their hands, there does need to be a way out.

When dating in a BDSM world, if at all possible, do not move away from your support networks (hopefully, you have some to begin with, although I know this isn’t always the case).  Most major population centres have a BDSM scene, and it’s worth starting there to try to find someone without making yourself too vulnerable and isolated.  In the process, you can also learn safety practices and habits, and be cautioned about unethical persons and practices.  I know that local BDSM communities can have divisions and problems, and can be fractured or unwelcoming, so this doesn’t always work, but it’s worth trying, first.

When looking for a relationship with a measure of BDSM or power exchange and meeting new people, it’s a good idea to use the silent alarm or some modification of it.

Of course, a D/s relationship doesn’t automatically mean a 24/7 D/s (a 24 hours / day, 7 days / week dominance & submission paradigm) one, but unfortunately this is an assumption neophytes sometimes make, and a direction some consequently go. 24/7 D/s is a divisive argument in the BDSM community, because of the stakes involved.  It is a form of edgeplay.

I’m willing to believe that 24/7 D/s is possible, but it would absolutely require regular check-ins to ensure that the participants are finding mutual fulfillment, ways to *mutually* renegotiate if it’s not working, and an exit plan if it fails.  That exit plan should include the financial means for everyone involved to start over.

I’ve never been in a 24/7 situation and don’t make the rules, but I’d imagine they’d be something like this:

- If you and / or the person or people you’re negotiating with have not been in a lengthy (I’d prefer 2 years, but YMMV) D/s situation with anyone before, then you’re probably not ready for long-term 24/7 D/s.

- If you and the person or people you’re negotiating with have not been together for a reasonable amount of time, then you’re probably not ready for 24/7 D/s either, although it doesn’t mean that you can’t start small and work toward it carefully.  People change as you get to know them (or more accurately, they dispel some of the illusions you’ve developed / acquired about them).

- I know that 24/7 D/s people often strive for a paradigm that works without a safeword or stopping point, for a total power exchange.  I’d hope that if there’s no stop point, then there’s at least a way to communicate (because a submissive still needs to be heard and have their needs considered), and for renegotiation, if needed.

- Would a short-term 24/7 with scheduled renegotiation point work?  I don’t know.  But jumping in too quickly and too completely is usually a bad idea.

- I’m not convinced that 24/7 D/s can be accomplished with a stranger.  This is a long-range thing, not something to expect from the outset.

The idea of a 24/7 non-negotiable ownership situation is a fantasy, however much people might want it to be otherwise.  It’s not legal for one person to own another (nor should it be).  You can push it to the edge, if that’s what everyone involved wants to do, but a responsible arrangement does not go over it.

Reality will absolutely never be what you fantasize it to be.  I think most people understand that, but it bears repeating.  Real life will always throw in tedium, surprises, tragedy and drag-downs.  Likewise, the people who are participating in your life will have different fantasies and objectives — how different depends on how well the two of you have negotiated.  Those fantasies and objectives change over time for both of you, so there absolutely has to be a way to come back to the table and renegotiate periodically. The exit plan is for if you can no longer resolve your different visions.  It happens, and you can’t always predict it in the beginning of a relationship.

You cannot prepare for a sky dive by fantasizing that your chute will open.  It is your responsibility as much as anyone else’s to ensure that your gear is assembled properly and functioning.

This doesn’t mean that the victim is to blame for what happened [if things happened as being presented -- see update above] — the victim’s responsibility was only to avoid making themselves vulnerable to exploitation as much as they could (even if the situation was meant to achieve vulnerability), but the responsibility ended there.  The perpetrator’s responsibility was to not abuse and exploit that vulnerability, especially with the amount of personal authority being given.  The burden is by far on the perpetrator.  But either way, these are discussion points a person can use to plan for what they can, and to use caution.

The only other responsibility is to not put more expectations upon someone than is reasonable.  This is something that happens in BDSM, and then the dom(me) is blamed if they fail to live up to those expectations.  I don’t know if that happened here, but I have seen it when trans people (or anyone else, for that matter) enter BDSM relationships and expect them to be everything they dreamed.

Certainly, there are bad apples in BDSM (as anywhere), and the risk of predation is far greater when this level of power is exchanged.  You’ll hear that a lot: “you can’t blame us all for what a few bad apples did.”

But even the “good apples” are human.  No matter how much you feel you can trust and respect someone, there has to be a contingency for when they inevitably fail.

The biggest challenge for D/s dom(me)s is the expectation that they be somehow perfect, and infallible.  Sometimes this even means that they aren’t supposed to have emotions, health issues, weaknesses, character flaws… yet everyone has failings.

A dom(me) should never be so insecure as to not be able to communicate, negotiate, change, acknowledge their own failures, and allow for exit plans.  A dom(me) isn’t supposed to be perfect.  They are, however, supposed to be responsible and ethical.  That’s the line.  And it won’t always be obvious at the beginning if everyone knows where that line is.

Take care, be safe, realize your value and get what you need without losing yourself in the process.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project and Facebook)

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.

“Instead, the official reiterated the government’s position that political parties and candidates, not Elections Canada, would be responsible for increasing voter turnout under Bill C-23.”

“Instead, the official reiterated the government’s position that political parties and candidates, not Elections Canada, would be responsible for increasing voter turnout under Bill C-23.”

That’s the altogether revealing comment that might have slipped past you in a Hill Times article last month which showed that a 2008 Elections Canada ad which was seemingly critical of industry — and which Conservatives had pointed to as evidence that Elections Canada needed to be stripped of the ability to encourage people to vote — never actually aired in the first place.

“The ad—a 25-second video that contrasts urban pollution and emissions to an evergreen forest as it urges youth to “vote, shape your world”—was created for Elections Canada but cancelled in 2007 by the newly installed chief electoral officer that year, Marc Mayrand.”

The obvious irony — that the allegedly partisan commercial was pulled because it was considered not objective enough, and yet is being used to silence impartial voter encouragement — is significant on its own.  But it becomes that much more jaw-dropping in the face of the Harper government’s position: that it was important to end impartial voter drives, in favour of clearly partisan ones.

Stephen Harper has made no secret that his aim is to reshape Canada so that the Conservatives become the nation’s “natural governing party.” He’s been arguably helped by the fact that the anyone-but-conservative vote has been split among three parties, with few other distinctions among them — especially since the NDP dropped socialism from its platform and the Liberals have been adept at obscuring their own neoliberal track record.  The hypocrisies already noted about the Harper government’s “Fair Elections Act” have already revealed that this bill is intended to help achieve this natural governing status, but the comment above reveals that the use of the bill goes much deeper than the mainstream media has already realized. Continue reading

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.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 926 other followers