In his day, Jesus was criticized for being a friend to prostitutes, outcasts and those on the margins. Some things haven’t changed in 2000 years. That helps explain some unlikely bedfellows who are currently gathered at the Supreme Court to debate Canada’s prostitution law. The crowds in four overflow areas and many others watching the proceedings live online were evidence of what Justice Louis LeBel voiced in his probe to Terri-Jean Bedford's lawyer: “Are moral concerns not part of forming criminal law?”
The long broad view on what it takes for human flourishing is at stake in this historic hearing on prostitution at the Supreme Court of Canada. Interveners in the Court who are motivated by Christianity on this weighty matter come from the tradition called the prophetic voice of religious life. Like it or not, they have a spiritual sense that human dignity and respect for life motivate them into the political affairs of the nation. Occasionally, such groups organize and come well armed with statistical evidence to back up their instincts, and that’s what happened in Court. Not all interpreted their concern with such charity.
“What we have in the prostitution law is moral panic,” complained Prof. Alan Young, the lawyer for three experienced prostitutes wanting more safety on their job. He accused interveners of “myth-making, fear-mongering and storytelling.” His dismay came after listening to Georgia Lee Lang, lawyer for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, make the church’s case for keeping brothels and pimping an illegal activity in Canada.
So much is at stake in this case, we should debate how the two groups could find common ground. Prof. Young’s statistics argue that prostitutes cannot avail themselves of basic security measures if they can’t have legal brothels and hired security help. “It’s very clear, moving indoors is safer. There’s still a danger, but its significantly minimized. In street work, 70 per cent experience violence, compared to 28 per cent in massage and 15 per cent in independent work in their homes,” Prof. Young told the court. Still, Justice Michael Moldaver questioned him with evidence that the most marginalized will never see the doors of a brothel for a host of sociological reasons.
The intervening Evangelical Fellowship argued that legalization of prostitution in Germany, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Australia has brought an explosion of human trafficking as pimps source to meet market demand. “Legalization has facilitated a massive expansion of prostitution in Australia; women cannot compete with sex-trade businessmen” said Ms. Lang.
I agree with Prof. Young that mythmaking must be left out of the argument here, but his accusation that the church is engaging in fearmongering and storytelling is wrong. Both fear and story both have undeniable reality that has to be considered in this argument.
Abused kids are the primary fuel source for prostitution in Canada. That fact is repeated in so many stories that are on the court record, including Ms. Bedford’s. She was in child protection, but as an abused 16-year-old entered the sex trade at the hands of a 37-year-old drug dealer to support both of their addictions. She is no longer in that victimized group, but so few have her success story.
Dr. Benjamin Perrin of the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Law, the author of Invisible Chains, documents how 85 to 95 per cent of Canadians in prostitution want out of sex work but need help.
That’s what this case is really about. The faith community cares because it’s long been listening to these stories from former prostitutes.
“We the survivors of prostitution and trafficking declare that prostitution is violence against women. It is chosen for us by poverty, past sexual abuse, and pimps who take advantage of our vulnerabilities and the men who buy us” states the website Embrace Dignity, a Canadian group that collects such stories and finds help for women.
We should fear that the importance of this issue will get ignored, and every story told by a person experienced in prostitution matters in helping parliamentarians craft better laws. We all have very different ideas on what safety and security means, but surely we can agree that protecting the vulnerable will always be our common value.
Lorna Dueck hosts Context TV, which appears Sunday mornings on Global and Vision networks.