49 Degrees: Canadian Pagan Perspectives

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Prostitution Laws in Canada, and Why We Should Care

ProstitutionI read a blog called "The Honest Courtesan" written by a retired call girl named Maggie McNeil, that discusses sex, sex workers and our attitudes about it.  I don't always agree with everything she says, but she wrote an article recently that I've been ruminating on.  The long and the short of it is this:

For many years, prostitution has been decriminalized in Canada; but everything around it has been illegal, from the keeping of a place of business to "living off the avails" of prostitution (so if, for example, a hooker hired a driver/bodyguard to protect her, he could go to jail.)  On September 28, 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that, at least in the province of Ontario, these laws were against our Charter of Rights and Freedoms (our equivalent of the Constitution) and the government was given a few months in which to try to appeal or to draft a new law.

Sounds like a positive choice, right?  But Maggie predicted, accurately, that this would be used as an opportunity for anti-prostitution lobbyists to suggest another option, which was to adopt a policy that is becoming known as the "Swedish model."  That is to say, prostitution itself isn't illegal - buying sex is.  So the criminals become the clients, not the prostitutes.

Many are saying that this move will protect women against abuse and sex trafficking; but statistics don't support that.  The data supports what I think should be common sense; it makes the whole process much more dangerous for the sex worker.  How many will be beaten or killed to protect a client's reputation?  Where are they going to advertise and work so that the anonymity of their clientele is protected?  If they open a brothel, police will establish sting operations on their clients.  If they go to the designated red light district that everyone in town knows about - well, their clients won't.  They will have to rely on go-betweens (read, pimps) to set up liaisons, making them even more dependent on third parties who will demand a cut (or service) in exchange for their efforts and legal risk.

Maggie writes that there is no real evidence for this big myth of world sex trafficking that has been concocted by anti-prostitution activists.  She says that it is much like the Satanic Panic of the late eighties and early nineties.  Some of us still remember those times, when wearing a pentagram might get you arrested; and the fallout of that is still being felt.  It makes me sympathetic to the cause.

The data is questionable in either case.  I do know that according to the UN, roughly 40% of human trafficking is for prostitution and another roughly 40% is for enforced labor; but to admit the latter might mean we couldn't get pants for $5 a pair at department stores, so nobody wants to talk about that.

Now, the question you might be asking is, why should we care?

Whether or not you approve of prostitution, one thing that a lot (though not all) Pagans approve of is the right of women to autonomy over their own bodies, and the right of consenting adults to have the freedom to make sexual choices, as long as no one is being exploited and there is no lasting harm done.  In general (though again, not always,) we Pagans support alternative lifestyles, a variety of gender identities and sexual preferences, and even kink.  So why should it be illegal to sell something that it is perfectly legal to give away, whether or not our moral compass approves or disapproves personally?  I don't believe it's any of my business what you do in your bedroom, as long as no one is getting hurt or being exploited.

Prostitution is, however, a contentious issue, even in feminist circles (and I count myself in the feminist camp.)  The reason is the issue of exploitation.  There is a general belief that any prostitute - or indeed, any woman who would sell sexuality - is by definition being exploited.  Otherwise, why would she humiliate herself in such a way?

Far too many women are raped.  One in four of us, say statistics, will experience sexual assault in our lifetimes.  With songs like "Blurred Lines" bantered about, many of us are using the phrase "rape culture."  I would not disagree that our culture certainly seems to encourage the sexual exploitation of women. But I don't think this proposed law, to criminalize the clientele, is on the path to improving that.

In the first place, I disagree with the notion that any woman who sells sex is being exploited or humiliated.  That only holds true, in my opinion, because women having sex with anyone but their husbands are seen as being dirty and inappropriate.  That's taught to us by the culture we live in and I believe that is one of the issues we must try to fight.

I believe women should be empowered to celebrate their sexuality in any way we wish that is not harmful to others; and if that includes selling it or exchanging gifts for it, that is their right.  Whether or not you might agree with me, as a Pagan, statistically you are likely agree that our government has no place legislating what we do in our bedrooms. And that brings me to my second point.

This opens up a whole big can of worms; if this is okay to legislate, under the guise of "protection of women from exploitation," then where is it okay to stop?  Should kink not be allowed because a partner might get a bruise or a welt?  Should homosexual sex be forbidden between mutually-consenting minors because they might be embarrassed about it as adults?  Should working men be forbidden to have sex with stay-at-home wives because the wife might be considered to be "financially dependent" on the husband and therefore, not in a position to refuse?

Now, you might argue, neither one of these points are relevant, because the Canadian government, like the American government, has a right and even duty to make laws that protect their citizens, and sometimes, that duty trumps the freedoms we are entitled to.  That justification has been used to support all kinds of Big Brother tactics from both of our governments in recent years, and it's a grey area, to be sure.

But the proposed "Swedish model" of prostitution legislation does not protect the citizenry.  If anything, it will increase danger for sex workers and increase the likelihood of exploitation and illegal trafficking and pimping.  It will not, therefore, serve the purpose for which it is, nominally, proposed.

These are my two loonies on the matter.  I'm not sure what the solution is.  Maggie is not a supporter of legalization/regulation but I can see the benefit of it, simply because of health concerns.  This would also prevent exploitation.  And I think that growing up a little as a culture, and trying not to treat human sexuality as a dirty little secret, might be the first step in safety and happiness for everyone.

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Sable Aradia (Diane Morrison) has been a traditional witch most of her life, and she is a licensed Wiccan minister and a Third Degree initiate in the Star Sapphire and Pagans for Peace traditions. Author of "The Witch's Eight Paths of Power" (Red Wheel/Weiser 2014) and contributor to "Pagan Consent Culture" and "The Pagan Leadership Anthology," she also writes "Between the Shadows" at Patheos' Pagan channel and contributes to Gods & Radicals. Sable is just breaking out as a speculative fiction writer under her legal name, and a new serial, the Wyrd West Chronicles, will be released on the Spring Equinox this year. Like most writers, she does a lot of other things to help pay the bills, including music, Etsy crafts, and working part time at a bookstore. She lives in Vernon, BC, Canada with her two life partners and her furbabies in a cabin on the edge of the woods.


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