Canada
5 min

Speaking the language of sex

What's the Criminal Code doing in bed with you?

Marketers are often faced with the conundrum of selling a new product to people who don’t even know they want it. When it comes to selling the idea of increased sexual freedom, it’s more a case of selling a product people don’t want to admit to wanting.

In a country where the phrase “sex crime” conjures thoughts of violent sexual predators, many Canadians who don’t like our current laws against consensual sexual behaviour – laws that make group sex, sex in front of others, sex in places of business and sexual speech legally risky activities – often don’t even bother to complain.

The problem is compounded for gay and lesbian people who are unhappy with the way police use these laws to target gay bathhouses, cruising areas, art and pornography. After spending a decade arguing to courts that we’re just like everybody else and just want equal treatment under the law, it’s difficult to turn around and argue that existing laws, though equal, aren’t good enough for us.

Or is it difficult? Canadian queer activists are now wrestling with how to reform Canada’s obsolete sex laws. Do they argue on the basis of equality because the laws are used to discriminate against gay-specific (though certainly not universal) institutions like bathhouses and park cruising? Or do they argue that the sex laws are bad for all Canadians? Do they go it alone or work with other straighter sex-positive groups like sex worker organizations?

“The challenge we’re facing right now is to come up with the language,” says Stephen Lock, a Calgary board member of Egale Canada. “My own tendency is to be pretty straightforward: ‘Some guy is sucking dick in the park – so what?” Well, Egale can’t be using language like that. Because someone who understands the concept and agrees with our position would be put off and alienated if we don’t come up with the right language.”

Egale president Lisa Lachance admits that sex issues are more complicated than others. They’re touchier for members – many who were attracted to Egale for its stand on marriage – and touchier for the public. But it’s one Egale is committed to.

“We have discussed about whether we’re sending mixed messages because we talk about relationship recognition and we talk about anal-sex laws, for instance. I don’t think it’s contradictory. It’s just a matter of managing that publicly,” says Lachance.

One might wonder why Egale Canada, which has been in the national queer lobbying business since 1986, is still grappling with how to publicly talk about gay sex.
It could be argued that its strategy of court challenges on issues of legal equality (marriage, employee benefits, hate crimes) has been so successful it hasn’t had time. But recent events – including success on the marriage front and the raid on a Calgary bathhouse last December – has seen Egale board members hashing out strategies, if not tangible positions, on sex laws.

Lock was approached to join Egale’s board after his involvement in the community response to Calgary’s Goliath’s raid. Police charged 13 patrons with being found in a common bawdy house, and charged staff and owners for operating a common bawdy house because sexual acts were allegedly taking place in the open areas of the bathhouse. One of those charged was Lock’s partner, Terry Haldane, who is the only patron fighting the charge. (The rest took the alternative measures program to avoid the publicity.)

In something of a first, Egale is helping Haldane fight his charge on constitutional grounds and has helped him get funding from the federal Court Challenges Program, which provides money to people who are making equality challenges in court. His case comes up in November.
Though the equality argument does come with cash bonuses, Lock admits it can be complicated from a public relations standpoint. It means explaining gay sex to Canadians.

“Equality also involves being able to live our lives as gay men and lesbians live our lives, and part of that is how we express ourselves sexually,” says Lock. And that means talking more about gay sex and how it makes us
different.

“I can quite see that if we have one set of rules for gay bathhouses and another set of rules for straight massage parlours that you and I understand the difference between those two establishments, but Mrs Grundy is not going to.”

Another group trying to mobilize on the bawdy-house laws has a slightly different take on what works. An initiative of the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario (CLGRO) prompted by the Calgary raid, launched by putting out feelers among various sex groups, not just queer ones. In fact, one of the first agenda items was meeting with Alan Young, the lawyer for Terri-Jean Bedford. Bedford, a dominatrix to predominantly straight men, was convicted in 1998 of operating a common bawdy house. She is considering a court challenge and is looking for support.

A gay group supporting Bedford has some interesting implications. On the plus side, she’s a high-profile personality, who will attract a lot of attention to any case. It builds bridges between the queer community and the sex worker community. And the plight of street prostitutes, particularly in the shadow of the upcoming Vancouver trial of accused serial murderer Willy Pickton, will draw more sympathy than hedonistic gay men. But it also means no Court Challenges Program money or equality arguments. It means the straight sex-trade issues might drown out the more obscure gay sex culture ones.

“Is there anything wrong with it not being an exclusively gay issue?” says CLGRO’s Greg Pavelich. They still haven’t decided what kind of support to lend Bedford, whether it be fundraising, court intervenor status or merely a booster. “We don’t want to cherry pick around which aspects of the bawdy house laws we go after…. We’re trying to bring disparate groups together to ask how to pursue this. The police target groups of people, not just gay people.”

Whether it’s all-for-one or a more targeted approach, the funny thing about Canadians is how the courts are everybody’s first choice. We’re litigious crack addicts that way. Sex rights activists in the US and UK have adopted broader approaches including political lobbying and are much further ahead in building alliances between queers, swingers, SM practioners, sex workers and businesses.
Britain’s Sexual Freedom Coalition, created in 1996, has had some influence on the Sexual Offences Bill currently working its way through their Parliament. Though the government hasn’t quite gone as far as adopting the group’s proposed Sexual Freedoms Bill – which would repeal laws against pretty much all consensual sexual activity including sado-masochism – it has reworded its own bill so as not to criminalize swingers and doggers (people who have sex in front of other willing voyeurs). The group has also been consulted by government on censorship laws.

In the US, the National Coalition For Sexual Freedom was formed in 1997, and spends much of its time fighting county and municipal laws that prohibit sex clubs, sex shops and other commercial sexual activity. It is also working on a court challenge against national obscenity laws that create different regional standards of obscenity.
Coalition spokesperson Susan Wright says their approach has been to keep it simple: The average citizen doesn’t want to hear about the sexual behaviour of various members and member groups. In fact, too much detail hurts the cause.

“The whole idea of talking about sex is very difficult for politicians, but you can talk about having the right to privacy,” says Wright. “We should have the right to create a private space where people become members or they understand the rules and can engage in sexual activity with other adults. That’s something everybody can understand on one level or another.”