In 2014, Canada made history by creating prostitution legislation that recognizes prostituted people are not criminals, but that those who exploit them are. Previous laws treated prostitution as a public nuisance instead of an issue of violence against women. This new approach signifies a major victory for women’s equality as it will teach generations of men that women’s bodies are not for sale.
Of course, whenever there is an advancement towards women’s equality, there is a backlash; and this case is no different.
Over the last few months the conversation about Bill C-36 has been widely publicized by the media, though that coverage has been largely one-sided. Therefore the public has heard from those who oppose the law far more than from supporters. As a result, ordinary Canadians whose only knowledge about prostitution comes from the news articles they read with their morning coffee have been led to believe myths and lies about who created this law, how, and why.
Canada’s new prostitution law is not a religious conservative attempt to limit women’s autonomy, as the bill’s opponents would have us believe. The sex industry does not consist of morally-neutral transactions between consenting adults, and sex trafficking is not a separate issue from prostitution. Rather, these are myths, presented as indisputable truth, perpetuated intentionally by those who want to (continue to) profit from exploitation.
The truth is that the driving force behind Bill C-36 was a combination of the testimonies of women who have direct experience in prostitution, research from Canada and around the world on prostitution laws, and the lobbying efforts of women’s groups who seek an end to violence against women. This law stands as proof that what Canadian women want is equality, not exploitation.
It has been implied by opponents that the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, who heard testimonies, studied, and evaluated the bill, was full of Evangelicals and Conservatives who sought to impose Christian morality on Canadians and who refused to listen to women in prostitution. Although there were some Evangelicals who testified in the hearings, they were far outnumbered by secular lawyers, academics, and women with no particular religious affiliation who testified about their own experience in the sex trade. These accusations against the committee were part of a strategy to discredit Bill C-36 in the eyes of Liberals and the left. And it seems to have worked — the Liberals and the NDP unanimously voted against the bill, despite testimony and research supporting it. In a strange turn of events, Conservatives helped pass feminist legislation, while the Liberals and the NDP attempted to stop it. Although this raises interesting questions about what it means to be on the political right or the left in Canada these days, there’s no real reason why prostitution should be a partisan issue — ending violence against women should be a no-brainer for any political party.
Considering the level of contradictory information put forth about the issue of prostitution, it’s no surprise that so many people have difficulty separating fact from fiction.
The pro-prostitution lobby, with the support of many Canadian media outlets, has successfully reached and convinced much of the public that there is an entire sex industry made up of consenting adults and that exists in isolation from human trafficking and underage prostitution.
This lobby is represented most-notably by Terri-Jean Bedford, who has featured in much of the coverage of prostitution in Canada over the last few years. Media outlets love titillating their readers with images of Bedford, clad in black leather and brandishing her riding crop, delivering snappy banter in her best dominatrix voice. “Prime Minister Harper called me again,” she declared in the committee hearing for Bill C-36. “He wanted to appoint me to the Senate… as a government whip!” What is rarely mentioned in the media, however, is that it was not Bedford who sought out a lawyer to help her overturn Canada’s previous prostitution law – it was lawyer Alan Young who initiated the case. He stated on camera that he recruited Bedford to act as an applicant, despite the fact that the media frames the case as one “led by sex workers.” Another fact rarely mentioned in articles about Canada’s most famous dominatrix is that she was first prostituted before the age of 18. For all her talk about “consenting adults,” she was not yet an adult when she first learned that her sexuality was for sale.
But while the pomp and spectacle of the sex trade lobby carries on, the women affected by prostitution do the unglamorous – but necessary – work of healing themselves and helping others.