Elizabeth Pickett reflects on the future implications of Bedford v. Canada before the decision

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.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • MSM comment sections are soaked in men of the left supporting brothels and all manner of legal provisions for their wank. Interestingly, the most pro Nordic commentary I’ve read is from a Harper adviser and one conservative MP. I believe that initiative has been from Joy Smith, and to the extent we “win” anything here, it will be due to her. When I think of the NDP reaction to all this I feel like vomiting. For men this is all about con or left, and women? Not on their radar, we lose again to politicizing by the left.

    I don’t care anymore what horse we ride in on, neither prioritze women.

  • CaoCao

    Odd as it is, I’ve met that Terry Bedford. I was 18 years old, and in a state of extreme depression. I was in an abusive relationship at the time where my b/f thought her bawdy house ( that focused on S&M) was “cool”. She welcomed me with open arms to make money for her, no matter my mental state. I left pretty promptly..I never really did much there ( thank god). But I noticed in my brief stay, that all the women who “worked” for her were nothing but desperate (in need of money/immigrants), and usually mentally ill young women who really didn’t know what they were signing up for. In fact, she would let a man pay her hundreds of dollars to beat these girls ( subs- untrained, just kids off the street, one had just walked out of 2 weeks in a mental hospital) for hours. And she would leave these girls alone in a dungeon with the men off the street, with restraints and whips with *absolutely no supervision*. If they cried out for help, no one in that house would be able to hear them. So I remember standing by the door and listening every once in awhile. Checking on her.
    Her own daughter was a completely ill-behaved addict.

    So now whenever I see this woman on television, trying to be charming in her flashy leather coat, I know what she’s fighting for. She’s fighting to make it easier for women like her to exploit other women for increased personal profit.
    Just my 2 cents

  • Morgan

    In a couple of interviews with CBC today she’s stated she doesn’t have sex with her clients, and that she “punishes” them – she’s in a dominant position. So, doesn’t have sex with the clients and is in the position of power in her interactions with them – yep, sounds like the average experience of prostituted women in Canada, doesn’t it?

    It strikes me as a relatively privileged position within the prostitution industry and given that the “normal” experience is so very different from hers, I think it’s hurting a lot of women for her to be getting so much time to speak right now. Everyone hears how great it supposedly is, how she just wants to be able to spank men, no one hears about the horrors inflicted on most of the women who are prostituted.

    • rbd

      She’s very creative. We used to hear this was her choice, and nope, no childhood sexual abuse yada yada. She is now playing a teeny fiddle in a memorized sounding statement. Gang rape, rape, childhood rape. Trauma. Oh the trauma.

      It’s all coached. Pimped would be the word I guess.

    • CaoCao

      As stated above, I am familiar with Bedford and worked in her “business” for 3 months, though I know girls who worked much longer. It’s true, *she* never had sex with her clients, but the mentally ill girls she employed regularly did sexual favours (handjobs, oral sex).
      It’s true that her business focused on S&M, most of the men who came around expected regular prostitutes merely wearing fetish gear. Only about 10% if the clients were actually into any bdsm fetish. She did discourage straight up sex though, I think because her house was busted once before. But to say she was simply providing sex free BDSM is a lie. In fact, most “dungeon clients” expect some kind of sexual release or they wouldn’t bother. They would take their money to an escort and ask her to wear leather.
      Bedford depended on taking half of what the girls made.
      If she could see prostitution legalized in brothels, she would start making significantly more money. I truly believe that is at the core of her fight. Her income would go up astronomically if she could start offering all her clients anything they want.
      I just feel she isn’t how she’s being portrayed. Being a “dominatrix: for pay has very little to do with feminism. It’s just another male fantasy (the strong powerful woman who still desires you). I discovered during my time there, that it is usually the same as any other part of the sex trade. Yes, it is safer to be indoors, however, it’s still men paying women for sex of some sort. The men still shopped through the girls and made appointments with the ones they found the prettiest. They still expect sex for their money or they would complain and get angry.
      I don’t know. It’s rather haunting for me to see her all over the news. I just know she is not quite how she is presenting herself.

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