This week's hearings on the government's proposed new prostitution law represent a priceless opportunity to bash the Harper government for its clumsy, moralistic, ineffective and possibly unconstitutional attempt to suppress the world's oldest profession. Opposition politicians are gleefully on the attack, and so are a fair number in the news media.
So let's concede that the law is flawed, and let's further concede that eradicating the sex trade is impossible. So what kind of law do the critics think should we have instead? Er, long silence.
When asked about his views on the core issue – whether prostitution should be more fully legalized – Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau ducks and weaves. "What we feel is that the government in its approach right now isn't living up to what the Supreme Court asked it to do, which is to make sure that the most vulnerable people – the workers in the sex trade – are protected from violence," he told Sun News last month.
In fact, Mr. Trudeau's views on the morality of the sex trade are remarkably similar to those of the Conservative government.
"Prostitution itself is a form of violence against women," he said, after the Supreme Court ruling struck down the existing law last December. It follows that he thinks society has an interest in deterring this form of violence, just as it does in deterring wife-beating and rape.
Prostitution-law reform wasn't on anybody's political agenda until the Supreme Court came along. That's because the moral issues are divisive and the gender gap is huge. At the Liberal policy convention in January, Mr. Trudeau kept a safe distance from a proposal by the party's youth wing to legalize, regulate and tax prostitution like any other commercial enterprise. The public may be ready for legal marijuana, but he's smart enough to know that it's certainly not ready for legal brothels in a neighbourhood near you.
But don't expect him to bother you with policy proposals. Asked how a Liberal bill would differ from this one, he said: "I think there's a lot of different ways of doing it."
What, then, of the New Democrats? No way they'll touch this thing. They deferred a proposal to repeal prostitution laws at their last policy convention, because the party was too split. Asked if he'd consider legalizing prostitution, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said the issue is complex and needs to be thoroughly studied by a parliamentary committee.
Many sassy young progressive commentators (including women) assume that prostitution is like marijuana – that the moral issues are as outdated as hoop skirts, and anyone who thinks otherwise is an uptight reactionary old prude. After all, women should have a right to do whatever they want with their own bodies, and what happens between two consenting adults is nobody else's business. Prostitutes are no different from piano teachers, so get over it! They sound like Hugh Hefner circa 1962. Personally, I eagerly await the day when these women's husbands come home and say, "Sorry I'm late, honey, I stopped off on the way for a blow job." I am sure they'll think nothing of it.
Feminists themselves are deeply split on prostitution, as are those who've worked in the sex trade. Many of them also believe there is a moral case against it. As one former sex-trade worker told the CBC this week, "No woman wakes up at 18 years of age … and says, 'Mommy, I would like to serve 10 or 15 men a day for the rest of my life.' "
A strong majority of Canadians also disapprove of prostitution. But they are divided on whether it should be legal – and the gender gap is impressive. A recent Angus Reid poll found that 56 per cent of men think it should be legal, but 55 per cent of women think it should be outlawed. Asked about the new bill, 47 per cent said they oppose it, against 35 per cent in favour. My guess is that this is more a referendum on the Harper government than the bill itself, which people admittedly don't know much about. Asked whether they support specific provisions of the bill – such as banning advertising that sells sex, or outlawing communication to sell sex in public places where there might be children – a strong majority agreed.
An awful lot of commentators say morals and values should have no place in the prostitution debate. Obviously, the Conservatives disagree. So, it turns out, do most Canadians.