Posts Tagged ‘ Canada ’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poison Pill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

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.

“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.

“Protective” Custody

The way that trans people are housed in detention and correctional settings has come to attention recently, after British comedian Avery Edison was detained by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) for having previously overstayed her visa — and then she was initially sent to a mens’ prison while the issue was sorted out.  After an outcry. Ms. Edison was moved to a female facility, but a number of other experiences that trans people have had with CBSA and Correctional Services Canada (CSC) have also come to light.

On Friday, I’d posted an article discussing some of the issues that come into play regarding housing in detention and corrections facilities, as well as a starting point toward a better solution. Hours later, news surfaced of yet another serious housing incident.

Katlynn Griffith was taken to a the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, and placed in a holding cell with four men.  She asked to be moved because of concerns for her safety, so she was moved to protective custody.  In this case, “protective custody” means that she shared a cell with two accused male sex offenders.

She was finally transferred to a womens’ section of the jail the following morning.  CBC reports:

Baxter said while in custody, Griffith was subjected to homophobic slurs from inmates and requests to perform sexual acts and was allegedly referred to as ‘it’ by guards.

The Cracked Crystal Ball II calls this an act of aggression on the part of the guards:

The only way this makes sense is if the guards believe that their role is to mete out arbitrary punishment over and above what incarceration already is.

How often does this have to continue to happen before CSC and CBSA admit that there’s a problem?

Reprising from Friday’s article:

And yet, the solution is far easier than one might expect.  Housing trans people “in a way that is not inconsistent with their gender identity” allows for situation-relative options, while still providing dignity for trans people and safety for all concerned…

Extensive discussion at the link.

On the Detention of Trans People

(This article has been updated with information newly disclosed in a report by Global News — Mercedes, 24April14)

“… in a way that is not inconsistent with one’s gender identity.”

Remember that phrase.  It’s going to simplify something that might otherwise seem like a complicated issue.

So this British comedian walks into Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

Some of you have heard this one before…

The treatment of trans people (particularly trans women) in detention facilities, in the correctional system and in border security has come under re-examination recently, following the story of 25-year old Avery Edison.  The British comedian had overstayed her student visa during a previous visit to Canada, and so upon her return, she was detained by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA).  That would all be unremarkable, if not for the fact that she is trans… which means that CBSA did not feel they had a space to accommodate her, and instead sent her to spend the night in a mens’ prison.

This led to a backlash against CBSA (and to a degree also Correctional Services Canada, which has a similar policy to CBSA and which provided the prison facility).  By evening, it was being reported that Avery was being moved to the Vanier Centre for Women.  She has since returned to the U.K. (and has talked about the experience on a few occasions).

But although Edison’s situation has been resolved, her experience leaves unanswered questions about how trans people are handled in correctional and detention systems.  And since her situation, two other incidents have brought the issue back to media attention.

A Human Rights Law Point of Note

Human rights law with regard to trans people is still in a state of flux.  In the discussion about Avery’s situation, people pointed to Toby’s Act, a trans human rights law that had been passed in the Province of Ontario, and claimed that the detention was a violation of that law.  But even though Edison’s detention happened in Toronto, Toby’s Act does not apply.  The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) — like Correctional Services Canada (CSC) and the RCMP — is a federal agency, and therefore subject to federal legislation.

On the other hand, Randall Garrison’s federal trans human rights bill, C-279 — which passed in Parliament and is awaiting approval by the Senate — would apply… but it hasn’t received Royal Assent as of yet.  A similar but more comprehensive bill (Bill Siksay’s C-389) passed in the previous Parliament, but died before receiving Senate approval, when an election was called.  C-279 would apply to federal institutions, while most peoples’ employment, housing and access-to-service situations remain provincial in jurisdiction.  And to be fair, even if Bill C-279 had been given Royal Assent, it would still likely take CBSA, CSC and other federal agencies some time to bring their policies in line to be consistent with it.

However, they have had since at least 2011 to realize that there would eventually need to be a policy change, and have not done anything (including other previous issues at the border alone, in 2013).  A trans human rights law will inevitably pass, whether in this session or in the next Parliament.  The time to plan for and begin that change is now.

Housing of Trans Inmates and Detainees

Correctional and detention facilities currently house trans people (and people who were born with intersex medical conditions) according to the configuration of their genitalia — if you have a penis, you’re housed with males, and if you have a vagina, you’re housed with females.   This policy is also accompanied by a lot of gender essentialism, invalidation, misgendering and antagonism, both from hostile staff and from other detainees or inmates.  And although some will minimize this as inconsequential or as mere expressions of free speech, the lived experience of it is in fact one of deliberate and sustained hostility and dehumanization.

This housing policy can create a cyclical problem in which trans people are housed contrary to their gender identities because of their genitalia, but are also then denied access to medical care like genital reassignment surgery (GRS), which would (by extension) be a crucial step toward obtaining more appropriate housing.  In the U.S., a 14-year-long series of lawsuits pertaining to access to medical services continues, following the appeal of the most recent verdict in Michelle Kosilek’s favour.

In Canada, a human rights complaint had resolved the issue in trans peoples’ favour in 2001, but a 2010 directive from the Harper government instructed CSC to stop funding GRS surgeries, anyway.  The post-2001 policy is still on CSC’s website, but the actual practice under the Harper government has been to ignore the policy and deny GRS, which the government insists is not essential (contrary to the medical consensus).  The Conservative government does so via a distortion of the “real life test” (RLE, better known as “real life experience”) recommended by the WPATH Standards of Care (SoC).  The SoC requires living as ones identified gender for one year in the community, and the government considers that RLE suspended when a person is incarcerated (contrary to WPATH’s intent).  This “suspension” of the RLE also opens up the possibility of ignoring an inmate’s attempt to transition, or denying things like hormone therapy, although it’s not certain if this is occurring.  Prisoners’ Legal Services, based in B.C., is fighting to change CSC’s interpretation of the RLE.

Of course, there are two larger issues outside of this vicious circle.  The first is that “trans” covers a diversity of people.  Trans can signify a biological transition from one’s birth sex to their identified sex (which treads into medical territory, and refers to the people most commonly thought of), or a need to live between genders or independent of gender somehow (mostly through various modes of gender expression, but also sometimes involving some medical transition) — or some combination of those two characteristics.  [NB: the reason I use "trans" terminology, in fact, is to demonstrate that I'm referring to a diversity of people who are not easily defined under a single label]  For trans people who need surgery, there is often an anxiety and dysphoria that can make it a substantial and urgent need — but not all trans people experience that dysphoria or require surgery.

That leads to the second larger issue — that a person shouldn’t have to undergo major surgery/ies in order to be entitled to the same human rights and dignity as their peers.

And everyday practice does not always align with policy, for that matter. In American prisons, there have been cases where housing was sometimes not even determined by genitalia or identification documents — even though those are the policies — but by a subjective visual assessment of a person’s gender.  And sometimes, they have been completely wrong.  It has certainly led to trans women being housed with men even if they have had genital reassignment surgery.  Canadian prisons may have a better track record in this regard (although Avery Edison had a female gender marker on her ID), but it really depends on the employees empowered to make judgment calls.  We’ll return to that point.

Identity Documents

Part of what discourages institutions like CBSA and CSC from addressing trans accommodations is the fact that identity documents further confuse the issue.

Most provinces have policies requiring surgery and a doctor’s examination of genitals before gender markers can be updated — something that brings up human rights issues, especially when one considers that a genital reassignment surgery requirement is also a form of sterilization, essentially barring trans people from future procreation.  If that sounds like stretching to you, it’s worth remembering that at one time, some countries consciously codified this into their laws.

This surgery requirement creates hardships, however.  As not everyone medically transitions and/or proceeds to surgery, this results in incongruent identification.  For those who do transition medically, the process is at minimum a year (recommended by the current medical standards of care set by WPATH), but more often takes several, especially when there are barriers in accessing medical care, financial issues and other challenges.  During this time, incongruent identification opens people up to disenfranchisement, discrimination and even violence.

For this reason, some provinces have been revising their policies.  This is an important step to allowing trans people to participate in society, but in the interim, it also creates a situation in which identity documents are inconsistent from province to province.

In terms of border security, they’re even less consistent from country to country.  Some provinces (and some U.S. states) do not allow trans people to change the gender marker on their identification ever (regardless of surgical status).  A few nations are now starting to include the option of third gender markers (such as “X” for “not specified”).

And even when policies of accommodation exist, sometimes the steps to get there are amazingly inscrutable — witness this handy flow chart spanning three pages, outlining the steps a trans person needs to go through to obtain a gender-congruent passport, in Canada.

Consequently, identification documents can’t — at this point in time, at least — provide any definitive guidance on how trans people should be housed in correctional or detention situations.

(Trigger warning: there is some general discussion about rape and the fear of potential rape situations below)

“… in a way that is not inconsistent with one’s gender identity.”

Entities like CBSA and CSC are often afraid to look at changing their policies on trans people because it seems too daunting a task — and the complexities of identification certainly reinforce this impression.  Often, the idea of housing a woman who has a penis with other women also brings up the spectre of rape in womens’ institutions, and so correctional systems can be loath to considering change.

It is unreasonable to assume that women who have penises are automatically potential sex predators.  On the other hand, it is also unreasonable to require that all women with penises be accommodated in general female populations.  What’s missing is context, and a reasonable assessment of the risk that any individual (because predators exist in any characteristic population, even among cis women) poses to others.  A woman with a history of violence is justifiably going to be viewed differently from one who overstayed her visa.  An individual’s history must absolutely be taken into account.  Accommodation as one’s identified gender is an ideal situation, but violence, predation and other factors in detained individuals’ histories certainly has to be considered.

And yet, the solution is far easier than one might expect.  Housing trans people “in a way that is not inconsistent with their gender identity” allows for situation-relative options, while still providing dignity for trans people and safety for all concerned.  Accommodations for a trans woman might be a female facility, a trans- or LGBT-focused facility, short-term isolation or semi-isolation, or some other alternative.  No one solution fits all — for example, a trans-focused wing might still deny people access to programs that are available to other inmates and which they would otherwise qualify for — so a final decision is inevitably context-dependent.  Individual histories and risk assessments can be taken into account.  Individuals can be moved according to the varying levels of risk they both pose and are potentially subject to from other inmates (the latter seems to often be forgotten when discussing housing of trans people).  And yet a trans woman’s identity as a woman can still be respected.

One’s gender identity can be determined through a combination of factors, starting with a person’s own self-identification, and verified through supporting information, such as the individual’s gender expression, their identification (if updated), the name that they are currently using (i.e. if found on a piece of mail or correspondence on their cell phone), a letter from their doctor, or other supporting information.  There should be some flexibility, because hard-specifying particular forms of verification can be problematic: for example, not everyone can afford to update their legal identity information; also, requiring a letter from a doctor can create an institutional barrier to being accorded one’s human rights.

An individual’s own wishes should also be taken into account.   For example, some trans men are uncomfortable with the idea of being housed with males in detention and correctional systems.  And some trans people do not identify as either gender.

Although there may not be a hard-and-fast rule for every situation, housing trans people “in a way that is not inconsistent with their gender identity” provides a respectable base from which to start, within the context of nearly any given situation.

It’s More Than Housing

It’s absolutely crucial that staff receive training on professional communication with and treatment of transgender and gender nonconforming inmates.  They also need to be aware of intersex conditions enough to respect individuals who may not identify as trans, but still not neatly fit into binary housing defined by physical sex.

Police forces have begun to revise their policies surrounding strip searches of trans people, so that they’re searched by a person of their identified gender, or else they can opt for a “split search,” with one male and one female officer.  This is because strip searches of trans women by male officers has historically resulted in abuse, and resulted in a 2006 ruling asserting trans peoples’ right to dignity.

Correctional and border security institutions need to adopt similar policies, and to also ban gratuitous searches or physical examinations of transgender inmates and those with intersex conditions solely for determining their genital status.  If the need for a genital examination arises outside of a necessary strip search scenario, it should be conducted by medical professionals, with the understanding that the option to be examined by a medical professional of ones identified gender should still apply.

Rape and Torture Were Not the Penalty

People who are incarcerated in the correctional system are usually not given a lot of sympathy, and people detained by border and immigration services have been increasingly seen with the same kind of negativity (or at best, ambivalence).  It’s important to remember that regardless of what a person has done, they’re still entitled to due process and the same rights and dignity of others in the correctional system.  We certainly don’t sentence people to prison rape, for example.  As soon as a person is targeted for specifically additional treatment because of who they are, that quickly becomes cruel and unusual punishment.  And it’s important for social movements to care about all of those within their constituencies — even those who make mistakes.

In the case of trans people in detention situations or worse, that cruel and unusual punishment starts with constant hostility and antagonism pertaining to their gender identities.  Pronouns and names become weapons, and that is simply the start.  Trans women housed in male facilities also become very obvious targets for potential rape.  This is significant, and it can be argued that by consciously and deliberately housing trans women with men, the Canadian government may in fact be institutionally sanctioning that rape.

Institutions usually try to reduce this risk of rape by keeping trans people in administrative segregation — a nicer way of saying “solitary confinement.”  This removes social interaction almost entirely, it is psychologically devastating, and the United Nations asserts that over 15 consecutive days of solitary confinement classifies as torture.  For trans women, solitary confinement is sometimes the full length of their incarceration.

Avery Edison’s story and those that have followed reveal not only a problem with housing by CBSA and CSC, but also a severe education issue among staff in both the border and correctional systems. Both can be remedied… it’s just a question of whether institutions want to do so.

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)

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