4 min

‘Platitudes, moralism and band-aid solutions’

Sex laws report lacks substance, activists say

Credit: Joshua Meles photo

“It was three years in the making and it is vague in the extreme. The recommendations offer nothing,” says Glenn Betteridge, referring to the report tabled Dec 13 by the Parliamentary subcommittee investigating Canada’s sex laws.

A senior policy analyst for the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network in Toronto, Betteridge is unimpressed with the report, which he says offers “no real substance.”

He’s not alone.

Gay activists and sex workers alike are dismissing the report as profoundly disappointing.

Struck Oct 2, 2003 in the wake of the Downtown Eastside deaths and disappearances, the Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws spent much of 2005 touring the country, consulting sex workers and listening to their needs.

The result: a set of recommendations for further study and vague suggestions for future law reform.

The report stops far short of endorsing the calls to repeal Canada’s current sex laws–calls the subcommittee heard from many of its more than 300 witnesses during a process that spanned three Parliaments and two elections.

The consensus elements in the report describe the current status quo in Canada’s sex law regime as “unacceptable,” call for more research and education, and condemn the exploitation of under-aged prostitutes, the trafficking in persons and other coercive practices in prostitution, and the double standard that sees a small minority of street-level prostitutes garner a disproportionate amount of law enforcement attention while those who work indoors are usually ignored.

That’s where the consensus ends.

The Conservative members of the subcommittee (Art Hanger and Pat Davidson) view prostitution as violence, not commerce, and reject calls for decriminalization.

In contrast, passages supported by the subcommittee’s NDP, Bloc Québécois and Liberal members refer to prostitution as a health issue and call for “concrete efforts” to increase safety for sex workers, as well as programs to support those who want to exit the trade.

They do not, however, recommend the repeal of Criminal Code sections specific to prostitution and other forms of consensual sex between adults.

“Why doesn’t this study just come out and say what ‘concrete efforts’ they are talking about?” asks Valerie Scott of Toronto’s Sex Professionals of Canada.

“What adult sex professionals who choose to be in this business need, and there are many of us, is the removal of the communicating, bawdyhouse and procuring laws–and fewer cowardly politicians to achieve this,” she adds.

“This report shows that you always end up with the lowest common denominator if you work through Parliament,” says long-time gay activist Michael Hendricks of Montreal.

Hendricks, a retired HIV/AIDS counsellor who helped begin the fight for same-sex marriage in Quebec, calls the report “another chance to discriminate.”

“As recently as five or 10 years ago, gay people were sexual outlaws in this country, and we were in good company,” he says. “Now other sexual outlaws, like adults who choose sex work as a livelihood, continue to be treated the way we were.

“I attended some of the subcommittee’s hearings, and they had a chance to hear from the horse’s mouth how the current laws endanger sex trade workers. None of that is reflected in the report,” he adds.

Testimony before the subcommittee’s hearings identified the Criminal Code’s prohibition on public “communication” for the purpose of prostitution as a key element in isolating and endangering street-level sex trade workers.

“The subcommittee had a unique opportunity to truly improve the lives and well being of thousands of women, men and trans people working in the sex trade. Instead, their new report offers platitudes, moralism and band-aid solutions,” says Kara Gillies.

Gillies, speaking from Maggie’s, the Toronto Prostitutes’ Community Service Centre, dismisses the report as “disappointing, and very sex-negative.”

“I agree with the criticism from Maggie’s,” says MP Libby Davies, whose insistence in Parliament led to the committee’s creation three years ago. “The report doesn’t take on all it should. Decriminalization is needed now.

“Art Hanger did everything in his power to slow down the release of this report,” Davies adds.

Hendricks, too, blames the report’s lack of substance and refusal to call for decriminalization squarely on the subcommittee’s Conservative members.

“Libby’s been wonderful,” Hendricks told Xtra West, “but Hanger and the other Conservative committee member were a constant obstacle to consensus. Working with someone like Hanger is like trying to run with an enormous black iron ball chained to your leg.”

“I was amazed we were able to get a new committee formed in this Parliament,” Davies confides, recalling how the Conservatives seemed reluctant to reconvene the subcommittee after they formed a minority government in January.

Hendricks believes the sex law changes he sees as vital will come through the courts, not Parliament. (A constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws is reportedly being prepared by law professors and students at York University’s Osgoode Hall law school, and expected to be filed early in 2007.)

Peter Bochove, a Toronto bathhouse owner and head of the Committee to Abolish the 19th Century, is less critical of the report than Hendricks, but agrees that real change is more likely to come through court action than through a divided Parliament dominated by Harper Conservatives.

“The subcommittee did a good job and the conclusions go in the right direction,” Bochove says. “But there is no hope for change with the current government.

“As long as this government continues to stonewall on the issue of sex law reform, it is complicit with murder,” he adds. “A change of government is required.”

The report also fails to address the Criminal Code’s bawdyhouse provisions, which have been used to justify raids on gay bathhouses and other sexual spaces, Bochove points out.

John Lowman, a Simon Fraser University researcher who has studied prostitution for decades, sees a few good points in the report.

“This report and its research gives a good portrait of prostitution in Canada today, and listened to sex trade workers far more than any earlier government effort. It is a very important document, if only because it forced the Harper Conservatives to reveal their radical moral agenda on this matter,” he says.

“They have been flushed out, and flushed is the appropriate word. Canadians can now see just how moralistic and political their agenda is, Lowman told Xtra West.

Davies, too, believes the report represents some progress.

“This is the work of an all-party committee of Parliament and, as such, has more weight than the Fraser Commission report 20 years ago. I hope it will give groups that advocate decriminalization some support and evidence, especially with the Picton trial coming up,” she says.

“I am determined to keep pressing for change,” she continues. “The report isn’t an end point. It is the beginning of the next necessary steps.”