A lesson in contradictions and biased reporting: The sex trade obscured

Nick Purdon interviews a john.

Wednesday night’s episode of The National, entitled “The sex trade, up close,” had all the most grotesque features of a community centre kiddie pool: it was shallow, stagnant, artificially sanitized, and chock full o’ crap.

It begins, “Is there anything more hidden than the sex trade? Sure our laws keep it that way, but maybe more so it’s our morals that push sex work into the shadows.” I should have turned it off at the end of this line as there’s nothing like the dreaded “m” word to kill any chance of facilitating critical thought. (All you libertarians in the house pump your fists in the air.)

First, we’re taken into a meeting room with several women from Maggie’s, a Toronto-based charity and tax-funded organization that provides a once-weekly drop in centre workshops, harm-reduction materials, and “xxx fun” for people in the sex industry. Maggie’s has been critiqued because they consider children free agents, able to consent to paid sex with much older men (calling sexually exploited children “youth sex workers” in Shameless Magazine back in 2011), and consider prostitution law, statutory rape law, and Child Protective Services the greatest source of harm to sexually exploited youth (rather than, say, pedophile rapists).

The women from Maggie’s that are featured in The National would like to see prostitution legitimized as an independent business occupation and “moved out into the open.” The model of legislation that Maggie’s advocates for (full decriminalization) operates under the idea that stigma — and not systemically ingrained male violence and sexual entitlement– is the primary source of harm for women and girls selling sex. I would argue that if Canada fully decriminalized prostitution, the process of male socialization that, in fact, causes women to be dehumanized to the point of physical violence would be more thoroughly entrenched in our social fabric. One doesn’t have to look much farther than legal mainstream pornography, featuring themes like “facial abuse” where women are choked, gagged, and forced to vomit (and sometimes eat their own vomit), or “teen gang bang” to see that normalization of the sex industry doesn’t always have emancipatory outcomes for women and girls.

Next we see an interview with Vancouver’s Trisha Baptie, a woman who describes herself as a “formerly prostituted woman” rather than a “sex worker.” She points out that just because we can and currently do let men buy sex with impunity, doesn’t mean that it’s an equality-based practice, or one that should be legally sanctioned. Unsurprisingly, the reporter discontinues his use of “I” statements for this section as he clearly doesn’t want to be associated with all those “moralizers” who want to come in and rain on dudes’ fantasy-sex parade. He graciously allows Baptie to assert her position for roughly two and a half out of 15 minutes — just long enough to say he’s covered the other side, but not long enough to let the other side articulate a cohesive argument.

Just in case you were worried that The National wouldn’t fall out of the prostitution cliché tree and hit every damn branch on the way down, the next section of the episode features a disabled john with cerebral palsy.

“So who are the johns?” the reporter says. “Well, that’s the thing. Nobody really knows.”

Wrong again! Contrary to the myth that sex buyers are just lonely chaps who can’t get “intimacy” any other way, researchers suggest that the majority of johns are middle-aged, middle-class, Caucasian, in relationships (where they are having sex), Christian, and able-bodied, which ticks almost every privilege box available. The number one reason men cite for why they purchase sex is because they can.

“Justice Minister Peter MacKay refers to all johns as perverts. Are you a pervert?” the reporter asks the john, Patrick Clark, in the breathy tone of a high school guidance counselor.

While “pervert” wouldn’t be the first descriptor that comes to mind when I think of a sex-buyer, the fact that this man is in a wheelchair doesn’t make him immune to being a cog in the wheel of sex inequality. As I’ve raised in the past, part of honouring the humanity of people with disabilities is recognizing that they can be just as racist, ableist, classist, and sexist as those of able body and mind. When disabled men pay for sex with a woman in prostitution, there are two vulnerable people in the room and their vulnerabilities don’t cancel each other out.

Finally, we’re taken to Dennis Hof’s Moonlight Bunny Ranch.

“I fully intended to open up in Toronto, Montreal, Nova Scotia, and Vancouver,” says Hof, referring to when the Canadian Supreme Court struck down three major prostitution laws. Hof has made “a fortune” taking 50 per cent of the income earned by women he employs at his brothel. He refers to all these women as “girls” but also suggests that, “in legal prostitution, there is no one underage because those who exploit children are unable to get a license.”

The idea that with removed “stigma” comes removed commercial exploitation of children, is an argument with several contradictions.

First, it ignores the fact that in countries that have decriminalized (like New Zealand), brothel owners have argued that the certification is too easy to get and that brothel managers often don’t get certified as it’s not required for establishments where less than five people are working at one time. Secondly, in places that have legalized (like Victoria, Australia), most brothel owners do not bother to get the required license, which creates a two-tiered system, with the unlicensed brothels providing illegal — and more lucrative — services (which Australia’s Scarlet Alliance says leaves legal brothels at a financial disadvantage). Thirdly, fully decriminalized brothel systems are set up to be monitored by the Ministry of Health and are only inspected for compliance with safe sex regulations, not for exploited children (the 2008 review suggests they’re not inspected at all due to lack of resources). Lastly, if children are fully able to consent to sex work — as Maggie’s and several support services in Vancouver suggested in a November 2014 report entitled “Sex Work | Transitioning, Retiring and Exiting” — why should we be concerned about girls under 18 in the sex industry in the first place?

“Is it for me forever? Absolutely not,” says Krissy Summers who works at Hof’s Bunny Ranch and admits that she doesn’t like the sex and considers it an acting job. She entered the sex industry to pay off massive student debt. This is one thing that The National conveniently fails to discuss — the push and pull factors that land women and girls in prostitution.

“Maybe what we need to do is see the people behind the transaction,” concludes the reporter with soap opera-style piano playing in the background. “That might go a long way to lifting the stigma and keeping women out of danger.”

It’s hard for me to stomach the assertion that an establishment like the Moonlight Bunny Ranch, which literally makes a “cha-ching” sound every time a john opens the door, is truly seeing the people — rather than the dollars — behind the transaction. The best way to truly treat women like humans is to give them social and financial security without the sexual exchange and sanction sex buyers through stiff fines and public shaming.

I had higher expectations for The National. This segment read like a john’s personal diary and if I got my way, I would have titled it “The sex trade, obscured.”

Jess Martin

Jess Martin is a public relations professional, an aspiring writer, and an assistant editor at Feminist Current. She prefers to write about feminist topics, disability, or environmental issues, but could be persuaded to broaden her horizons in exchange for payment and/or food. In her spare time Jess can be found knitting, gardening, or lying in the fetal position, mulling over political theory that no one in their right mind cares about.