Concordia holds panel to discuss the challenges of how to best move forward
Four experts convened on Tuesday at a Concordia-organized event to weigh in, and argue for and against, various models Canada could take up in response to the recent ruling by the Supreme Court declaring the country’s prostitution laws unconstitutional.
The panel discussion, entitled “Canada’s Decriminalization of Prostitution: What’s Next?” and moderated by McGill law professor Alana Klein, featured Robyn Maynard, outreach worker at Montreal’s Stella ; Stan Burditt, founder of Men Against Sex Trafficking; Sarah Mah of the Asian Woman’s Coalition Ending Prostitution; and Terry-Jean Bedford, former sex-worker and current dominatrix, activist, and one of the individuals who successfully challenged and overturned the prostitution laws last December.
The main event, divided between opening statements and a debate on panelist viewpoints, made apparent that while both sides agreed to the fundamentals – such as the ineffectual nature of erstwhile legislation and a lack of safety for practitioners – the devil was in the details.
Broadly speaking, Bedford and Maynard argued for decriminalization as the best way of bringing agency to sex workers and tearing down of the walls of stigma and silence surrounding the world’s oldest trade. For Bedford, state-sanctioned legislation and not state-regulation of consenting acts between adults is the road to empowerment.
“In all the work that we’ve been doing to combat violence against sex workers, the laws have been a major impediment for people’s ability to defend themselves,” said Maynard about past legislative attempts to ban the practice.
In particular, they referred to New Zealand’s decriminalization methods as a model Canada could emulate.
The ability to publicly organize, negotiate, and run services, they explained, would facilitate safety standards and workspace regulations. Prostitutes should not be seen as browbeaten, helpless individuals, and neither should their clients be perceived as automatic predators. Why, they asked, is selling one’s body for sex considered degrading, while selling it for all other forms of paid labour fully accepted?
In one emotional moment, Bedford recalled how sex is often bought by those who couldn’t get it by other means.
“A lot of men need us to be their voice,” said Bedford, calling sex as much therapeutic as it is carnal.
Mah and Burditt on the other hand see prostitution as inherently immoral, asymmetric in power, and abusive, particularly towards minorities and those without recourse to justice.
“We know that the women who are trafficked are overwhelmingly women of colour, poor women, and women from third-world countries,” said Mah, defining it as ‘entrenched racism and sexism’ beholden to pimps and criminals. Both defended the so-called Nordic Model, a Swedish-born method that legalizes the selling but not buying of sexual services as a way to provide redress and compensation to those exploited while continuing to outlaw the actions of their exploiters.
“Prostitution is a form of men’s violence against women and is an expression of extreme gender inequality,” Burditt stated. Thus, he says, rather than giving them legal validity, “the proceeds of [exploitation], such as money, cars, and property, should be seized and the money used to fund programs used to help the recovery of those impacted. [The traffickers] should be designated as criminal organizations, because that’s exactly what they are.”
“Our group advocates for the abolition of prostitution as a profoundly racist form of violence against women and we formed to build awareness around the harms of prostitution,” said Mah.
Overall, as one commenter pointed out afterwards, the differences were between systems that encouraged economic and social incentives for a safe, willing, and orderly transaction of sex, versus a system punishing violent and illegal activity which denied sex workers their autonomy.
“We need to remind the public that sex worker’s voices need to be at the heart of this,” said Maynard. “It is not fair to sacrifice the lives of sex workers … as the way to achieve gender equality.”
Though mostly even toned and empirical, there were moments of emotion, most noticeably toward the end, and particularly by Bedford, sporting the steely resolve that has seen her fight on behalf of sex workers for two decades.
The event, preceded by finger food and drinks, was capped off by question and answer session featuring several high-caliber questions from the audience and an opportunity for the audience to purchase literature related to the discussion.