Before the Bedford case comes down to us from on high on Friday, I have a few reflections.
I’ve said since the case came before the courts that I think the timing of the constitutional challenge just couldn’t be worse — not just for all those women (and young men) in the sex exploitation industry — but also for women like Terri-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott who claim to have chosen their life’s work as completely free agents (sometimes it seems they are saying prostituted women are the only truly free agents in the free market world). I say that because in these neoliberal and neoconservative times, I can’t see how even they are going to get what they want.
What they want is the complete decriminalization of all activities surrounding prostitution. That includes the decriminalization of those who offer exploited sexual services, those who facilitate the sale of those exploited services, and those who purchase said services. Of course, that is not what was accomplished when the case was decided at the Ontario Court of Appeal. Instead, the court sought to strike down laws relating to the keeping of bawdy houses (brothels) and those pertaining to living off the avails of prostitution (pimping), while leaving those whose services are exploited on the streets under a criminalized regime.
This makes manifest the concerns of a society such as ours, in these economic times, to protect private property and those “good citizens” (white, middle class) whose neighbourhoods might become unsafe or whose everyday activities might be impinged upon by street solicitation and the violent goings-on of criminal gangs and organizations so often involved in street solicitation, including drug dealing.
After listening to the responses of several justices at the Supreme Court of Canada during argument on the Bedford case, it became absolutely clear that these concerns were taken very seriously by the justices. For that reason, I’m predicting that the SCC will leave the part of the Ontario Court of Appeal decision dealing with street exploitation alone. It’s no surprise that the protection of private property and the lives and business of nice white people is a prime concern in a neoliberal, capitalist country such as Canada. But my point is that it could have (and should have) been predicted at the outset. That is, unless Alan Young and his clients didn’t care about the most vulnerable of women involved in survival prostitution.
But even in terms of those women working in the sex exploitation industry indoors, like Bedford and Scott, whatever the Supreme Court does, it seems likely that there will be a government response in terms of future legislation. The Harper Government has already indicated that it will be so by adopting a resolution on prostitution based on the Nordic Model at its latest convention. I don’t believe even for an instant that Mr. Harper will decriminalize women, and most certainly not survival sex workers (and I have it from a very reliable and authoritative source that I’m right about that). Even if he were to do so, I’ve always said that women like Bedford and Scott, as well as every other woman working in the trade, will like the kind of regime these men create even less than they like the current criminal law. When we look at what this government does in terms of privatizing and defunding social and healthcare services for women, making them otherwise inaccessible and generally doing what it can to reflect, reinforce and reproduce values that are deeply inhumane, it is only in my worst nightmares that I can begin to imagine the kind of regulatory scheme they will impose or defer to provinces and municipalities over the lives of women who work the sex trade.
When women seek their freedom and liberation (though I don’t believe that this is what either Bedford or Scott is doing), they are wise to choose their allies carefully lest they find they have simply given their enemies more weapons to use against them. Overall, this is what I predict will be the result of using a constitutional challenge to the prostitution laws at this point in Canada’s political and economic history: No one will be happy but the men – and it will be the neocon men at that — especially the ones who believe the women they’ve married or who are their sisters and daughters deserve special regard and protection while the rest of us are simply vaginas for sale.
Perhaps the most difficult and disappointing aspect of the struggle I have been involved in over the past few years, with respect to prostitution in general, and the Bedford case in particular, has been the response of the men, and unfortunately women, who situate themselves on the political left. On this, and so many other issues, there has been such a complete lack of analysis of the exploitation and oppression of women and their manifestations in neoliberal economies that my mouth is continually left hanging open.
In October, the NDP’s federal council adopted a resolution calling for the complete decriminalization of prostitution. The issue came up at convention but was deferred. When it comes up at convention once again, the struggle will be against a fait accompli that will be difficult to change. The issue was raised mostly via the influence of MP Libby Davies whose federal riding includes Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The notion that the women who inhabit that part of town are free agents and are not only entitled, but able to make free choices in a free market that includes the buying of their bodies to service men, is laughable. The justification for believing this absurd construction is jejeune and deliberately ignorant. Prostitution is one of the most highly exploitative forms of work on the planet.
The crux of the prostitution debate seems to come down to this: Some people argue that prostitution is merely work and that, as work, it ought not to be criminalized. They also argue that it’s criminalization that is most responsible for the extreme violence that women in the sex trade experience (at higher rates than other women). On the other side, the issue of the labour involved in prostitution is most often sidestepped to focus on the inherent violence against women that prostitution represents and the fact that as such, it cannot be made “safe”; and the idea that it is the purveyors and buyers of women upon whom we ought to focus — the pimps and johns — since they are the authors of violence against women rather than the laws regulating the trade.
People on the political left appear to have accepted the idea that trading sex is just the provision of a service, without making much of an attempt to look more deeply at the nature of prostitution. Sometimes I think that’s because men on the left simply aren’t interested — and stand to gain by being the beneficiaries of legal and moral acceptance of a trade that looks after their ungoverned sexual impulses. Women who accept the superficial “work” analysis perplex me somewhat more because, apart from those who actually participate in sex trade, they appear to have no vested interest apart from being friends to men. That said, I have no doubt that some of these women believe themselves when they argue that prostitution is a valid choice for women and that, therefore, it should be decriminalized. What’s disappointing is that it’s the political left that possess the best tools for analyzing the “labour” aspects of the sex trade and providing insights into the ways it manifests more extreme forms of exploitation, oppression and violence than any other form of work we can think of while, at the same time, representing an unproductive form of service industry that offends the principles of human dignity by requiring the complete commodification of parts of women’s bodies and psyches. Well, “disappointing” is perhaps an understatement.
I’m quite sure that long after the Bedford case has been forgotten, women of the independent women’s movement will still be struggling for the liberation of all women and our focus will always be on women made most vulnerable by racialization, class position, and the effects of colonization. As long as I’m still breathing I will be working with them and I want to thank them for their uncountable hours of unpaid work on behalf of women, with the goal of our liberation from tyranny over our bodies.
So here’s to the Women’s Coalition and Asian Women’s Coalition, their lawyers and assistants, and to all those survivors of exploited and prostituted work who helped to provide an alternative and liberatory vision of women to the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada. Those are sisters who will most assuredly keep on keepin’ on and whom I must believe will ultimately prevail.
Elizabeth Pickett is an internet-based feminist freedom fighter, a mother and grandmother, a blogger, and a poet, seething in Winlaw, B.C.