By now I’m sure you’ve read my story that went up on Friday about the continued debate over prostitution laws between Conservative MP Joy Smith, Liberal MP Marlene Jennings, and NDP MP Libby Davies (with added commentary by University of Ottawa criminologist Christine Bruckert). But there were a couple of paragraphs that ended up on the cutting room floor that I thought deserved mention.
When Smith’s press release questioned why Jennings would go against her party’s vote on the 2007 Status of Women committee report, Jennings responded by saying “Unlike the Conservative Party, we actually have a party that has democracy inside. Secondly, it’s not because there’s a recommendation to go with a certain model that there’s a consensus across the board within Canadian society.” I thought that was valuable to note, seeing as the parties are not monolithic.
When Davies spoke about the Swedish studies on the “success” of their laws, one of the witnesses she specifically mentioned was a Canadian law enforcement officer that worked with Interpol who disputed the findings.
“There are many studies and research that show that in actual fact, what it’s done is drive the sex work underground,” Davies says. “It’s driven it onto the Internet, and that creates bigger problems for the police because basically is what happens is the sex worker is decriminalised, but the customer is criminalised, so it creates an impossible environment where a sex worker can in effect not conduct business with a client. They may appear to have dealt with the issue because the numbers have gone down, but the reason they’ve gone down is because it’s gone underground.”
As well, Bruckert disputed some established narratives on trafficking and the sex trade.
“At the root of it is an assumption that no one would want to do sex work,” Bruckert says. “If you start with that baseline assumption, then people will not migrate for sex work, because nobody wants to do sex work. Therefore, if they go to another country to do sex work, they must be being trafficked, and so therefore there’s this conflation between migration and trafficking. The second thing is that they’re also not looking at other forms of labour. So if nobody wants to do sex work, presumably people desperately want to work in kitchens for 12 hours a day, and desperately want to come and clean your toilets. Those sorts of things become defined as migration sometimes – illegal migration, irregular migration, but migration.”
As well, in discussing criminalisation, Bruckert talked about why it won’t help the situation.
“What we’re arguing is that any business that is kept in the shadows, that’s where abuse is more likely to occur, that as soon as you bring something into the open, and you give people the tools to fight that abuse, that’s when it’s going to decrease, and we know this from violence against women. We’re able to counter violence against women now that we’re talking about it, now that we see it, now that we can actually come and go to the police and say I’m being battered and the police have to charge.”
The same applies to sex workers. “Every single report that talks to sex workers say no, we don’t turn to the police because either they don’t take complaints against us seriously, or we’re afraid that we’re going to get charged – and they do,” Bruckert says. “If you want to help people, then you do not saddle them with a criminal record. You do not push them underground. You do not deny them the ability to work in the safety of their own home.”
Bruckert also mentioned that because bawdyhouse and communication laws apply to both sex workers and buyers, the buyers are already criminalised à la the “Swedish model,” and that hasn’t helped matters in Canada any.
I should also point out that I do think that Smith is sincere in her desire to help women who have been victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking, and no one disputed that she was doing good work – the disagreement lies in the proposed solutions.