An open letter to Peter MacKay, Member of Parliament for Central Nova:
I am alarmed by Bill C-36, your proposed prostitution legislation, and would encourage you to scrap it and start over. “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons”, an act keeping with this government’s convention of naming acts by what people want rather than what they do, is a laudable objective, but you can reduce human enslavement and trafficking without effectively prohibiting prostitution1, which you are in fact doing, given that you would have communication, advertising, and purchasing all banned.
With regards to prostitution, you use the word ‘inherent’ frequently, saying things like “inherent harms of prostitution.” Inasmuch as inherent means “existing in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute”, what, exactly, are these? I am especially eager for you to enumerate dangers related to prostitution itself that are indivisible from prostitution, not just ones that stem from the legal climate that has held sway until now.
Instead of ‘inherent’, it would be nice if you would use the more precise words ‘innate’ or ‘intrinsic’ because then we would know you’re talking about attributes indivisible from the thing itself. For example, if we’re talking about alcohol prohibition, a hangover is an innate and intrinsic harm, while getting gunned down by the mob is an extrinsic harm – though, in the wrong legal regime, perhaps a ‘characteristic’ one.2
I believe sexual rights are far more important than alcohol rights – sexuality is baked into us and our countless predecessors, while alcohol is a relatively recent discovery and can be lived without, which is not to say it should be prohibited. Yet comparing our attitudes to sex and alcohol may help expose the inconsistencies in our thinking.
Imagine for a moment that we are still living under alcohol prohibition, and a politician is making a case for continuing the prohibition on the basis of alcohol’s inherent harms. She points to the violence and mob activity that is centered around alcohol. She uses the extrinsic harms of alcohol – the ones related to its prohibition – as justification for its continued prohibition.
How is what you mean to do with prostitution any different?
It is true that alcohol does have innate dangers. As does sex – two primary ones being unwanted babies and sexually-transmitted infections. But the miseries of banning alcohol or sex are, in our portion of the world, considered worse than the misery of allowing them, and I think for good reason. And since we don’t think of alcohol as being poisoned by the exchange of money for it, why should we have this attitude for sex?
You also fail to adequately consider that sex work is something that someone may want to do, or if you do consider this, you have determined that you know better. Yes, some “prostitutes” are really trafficked slaves. But if sex work were a more open activity, there would be fewer places for people to hide such slaves, and less need for them.3 Your legislation will drive it even further into the shadows, where it’s much harder to ensure freedom and safety.
Most alarming of all, you demonize the purchasers of sexual services as “perverts” and “perpetrators”. You fail to consider the conscionable reasons that we, as sexual beings, would have for seeking them. I’m tempted to encourage you to seek out meetings with people who work as sexual surrogates. This type of work is legally protected in the United States when performed under licensed therapeutic supervision. I suppose it is similar to getting a doctor’s prescription for alcohol under the alcohol prohibition regime, but in both cases you would be able to see that the thing you’re trying to prohibit isn’t typically equivalent to a nuke in the face.
You say you are “threading the needle on a complex social issue”. How can you conscionably say this while you insist on treating all prostitutes as victims for the sake of the ones that are? I believe you will not come close to such a threading so long as you continue to pound the needle with a sledgehammer. I would like to see the government get entirely out of regulating consensual sexual expression, but I suppose I represent a minority at this time.
Having said all this, I am sympathetic about the actual complexities, the ones that you have ‘addressed’ by trying to legislate prostitution out of existence. It is certainly hard to square prostitution with our present public norms. If prostitution were as legal as selling fruit, what would keep it out of shopping malls? I believe I could live in a world where sexual services were available so openly, but in this I probably also represent a minority. More importantly, if you determined that prostitution must be meaningfully permitted (including the ability to communicate and advertise, of course), but left it to provinces and municipalities to zone, how could you ensure that such zones were meaningfully available?
Finally, you are careful to cite the imperative of protecting children, but in a way that assumes their heads would explode if they knew prostitution existed. You shouldn’t presume that everyone shares your sense of what is appropriate or shameful. You are the minister of justice for all of Canada, not just its social conservatives.4
As a person holding significant political power, you should be morally obliged to tell the entire truth about prostitution and not simply the horror stories that fit the perceptions you wish to cultivate. You must tell Canadians that the real difficulty with prostitution is fitting it into our expectations. Please put this legislation in the recycling bin and start working on finding a way to do that.
– William Matheson
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You can hear MacKay speak with Cormac MacSweeney on episode 215 of Maclean’s on the Hill. It served to infuriate me enough to write this letter.
Addendum, June 13: I wish I’d thought of this before sending the letter, but it was inspired by yesterday’s absurd comments from
Mrs. Lovejoy Joy Smith. Ms. Smith, I agree with you that human trafficking is deplorable. But effectively banning prostitution for the sake of stopping human trafficking makes as much sense as it would have to ban the cotton industry in the antebellum South to try and stop the slave trade.
Ottawa Citzen – “A shameful prostitution law”
Tabatha Southey, The Globe and Mail – “Don’t piano teachers deserve the same ‘protection’ as prostitutes?”
Emmett Macfarlane, Policy Options – “The new prostitution bill is terrible”
John Ivison, National Post – “Peter MacKay’s prostitution law a failure on all counts”
Jesse Kline, National Post – “The state re-enters the bedroom with new legislation on prostitution”
Vanessa D’Alessio, Toronto Star – “Sex worker rights: why Peter MacKay won’t get a date this Friday night”
Rosie DiManno, Toronto Star – “Prostitution bill a foolish fusion of right and left lunacy”
Berlin, RH Reality Check – “Why the ‘End Demand’ Approach to Sex Work Doesn’t Work”
Justin Ling, Loonie Politics – “The shambolic study of the Conservative’s prostitution bill”
Maggie McNeill, The Honest Courtesan – “Flush Criminalization” (Regarding Nassau County, New York District Attorney Kathleen Rice‘s “Flush the Johns” campaign.)
Felicia Anna, Behind the Red Light District – “Amsterdam’s ‘cure’ for forced prostitution.” (Scare quotes mine, but I’m confident she’d use them.)
The Real Porn Wiki Leaks – “Norway: Selling sex more dangerous after five years of sex-purchase ban”
The Economist – “A personal choice”
Elizabeth May speaks about C-36 in the House of Commons.
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Peter MacKay “responds”:
Dear Mr. Matheson:
Thank you for your correspondence concerning prostitution. I regret the delay in responding.
The Government of Canada is committed to ensuring the criminal law continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution to communities and to those engaged in prostitution, as well as other vulnerable persons. As you know, on June 4, 2014, I introduced into the House of Commons Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, in response to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Bedford v. Attorney General of Canada.
This legislation proposed tough penalties for those who purchase sex or exploit others through prostitution. It also seeks to protect communities and those who are at risk of being exploited from the dangers associated with prostitution, including violence, drug-related crime, and organized crime. Further information on Bill C-36 can be found at http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?nid=853729.
Our government recognizes that addressing the causes and consequences of prostitution requires a multi-disciplinary approach. In addition to the proposed changes in the criminal law, we have committed $20 million over five years to support grassroots organizations that provide programs and services to assist individuals wanting to leave prostitution.
Thank you again for writing. I always appreciate having the concerns of my constituents brought to my attention.
The Honourable Peter MacKay
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I’m glad that Peter MacKay appreciates having the concerns of his constituents brought to his attention. I’d appreciate having a parliamentary representative that makes an effort to demonstrate that their moral judgements aren’t arbitrary or prejudiced.
I’ve decided that I’m not going to use the word “prostitute” very often. It makes as much sense as calling a gay man a “sodomist”. But I enjoyed using the word unflinchingly and unabashedly. I’d do it again if it serves the purpose of provoking bullies like Peter MacKay.
Lezlie Lowe, Chronicle-Herald – “Defusing the landmines of language”
Some definitions of ‘inherent’ do suggest that it means a permanent and inseparable element – for example, Dictionary.com. To me, it merely means to be closely connected with, but not necessarily inseparable. I could be out on a limb here. And here’s what might be a better discussion of this basket of words. That James Champlin Fernald seems like he knows what he’s talking about. ↩
Sorry, that should have been “demand”. As in “the South’s cotton industry meant there was a high demand for slaves”. “Need” suggests a necessity, like there’s no other way. ↩
I should have emphasized the fact that this is a minority rule situation. Even in 2011, about 60% of voting Canadians voted for parties that were not socially conservative. I should have taken this tack because otherwise a social conservative could say the same thing about social policies to the justice minister of a future non-CPC government. ↩
They seem to have MP3 downloading disabled, but I’ve been able to get around it with the “SoundCloud Downloader” Firefox extension by Technowise. It will make a “Download” button appear on the SoundCloud page for the file you want. ↩