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2 min

The freedom to conform is not freedom at all

Campaign insults sex workers

What’s the point in defending the rights of women and children to make their own decisions (and the power to realize them) if you’re going to tell them what those decisions should be?

There’s an ad campaign currently running in Toronto that confidently states, “No 13-year-old dreams of getting into prostitution. Many dream of getting out.” The campaign, launched in late September by the Sexual Exploitation Education And Awareness Coalition Of Toronto (SEEACT), is aimed at encouraging exploited kids to reach out for help. A worthy goal to be sure, but its execution leaves much to be desired.

Why come at an issue sideways when you can come at it head on? No child should be forced to endure unwanted sexual contact, nor should any child be exploited for labour. This is something quite apart from proclaiming that prostitution isn’t a valid career choice. Is it not possible to fight for children’s rights without stigmatizing adult sex workers in the process?

UNICEF estimates that some 246-million children have been forced into child labour worldwide; three-quarters of those kids are working in mines, agriculture and factories. Does that mean we should tell kids to stop dreaming of growing up to be miners, farmers or factory workers?

The underlying assumption of the SEEACT campaign seems to be that no one would choose to be a sex worker of their own free will. Not so. Despite the many deterrents, like laws that criminalize sex workers by forcing them to choose between working safely and within the law, many women and men opt for careers in the sex trade.

Similarly, a report commissioned for the federal Justice Department and posted on its website in September (check it out at Justice.gc.ca/en/dept/pub/poly) argues that by declining to press charges against polygamists, Canada is violating international law and United Nations conventions on the rights of women and children.

But is polygamy really the problem? Lots of poly folk, queer and straight, don’t think so. Should Canada be continuing to criminalize all multiple-partner relationships because some women and children are being forced into marriages against their will? Or can we focus in on the part where people are being forced to do something against their will and not get so hung up on what that something is?

The report’s authors argue that the practice of polygyny is a problem in and of itself. (For those of you not up on your poly terminology, a polygamous relationship may involve multiple partners, who could be male or female. A polygynous relationship specifically indicates multiple female partners, presumably to a male spouse. A polyandrous relationship would involve multiple male partners, but no one’s much bothered about that at the moment.) While they acknowledge that there are “some academic commentators” who’ve argued that it’s the “patriarchal social context” rather than polygyny itself that is harmful, they maintain that, “where polygyny exists, it often stereotypes women into reproductive and service roles. As a result of such stereotypes as well as its inherent structural inequality, women can never be truly equal in polygynous unions.”

Section 293 of Canada’s Criminal Code bans “any form of polygamy” and “any kind of conjugal union with more than one person at the same time, whether or not it is by law recognized as a binding form of marriage.” Which is to say that a three-way relationship between queer women could be criminal, regardless of their individual legal marital status. If Canadian cops start laying charges in Bountiful, BC, home of the country’s largest population of adherents to the Fundamentalist Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-day Saints and big-time polygamists, will our hypothetical lesbian household be in danger, too?

Sex work isn’t a problem. Polygamy isn’t a problem. People being forced into things against their will is a problem. Rather than taking away choices from potentially vulnerable Canadians, let’s focus on giving them the power to choose and supporting them in those choices.