Supreme Court(esan) of Canada

Advocates for sex workers' rights, Valerie Scott and Terri-Jean Bedford. Image credit to Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press

Advocates for sex workers’ rights, Valerie Scott and Terri-Jean Bedford. Image credit to Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press

In December 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down the Criminal Code’s previous anti-prostitution laws in response to last year’s Canada v. Bedford case. In June of this year, parliament began the process of addressing the key issues raised, and it was recently revealed that the federal government’s proposed bill might provide basis for a constitutional challenge.

While sex work is legal, the essential issues behind the legislation overhaul are that the Criminal Code punishes those involved in prostitution, without acknowledging the complexity of the industry. As the courts state, the laws do not distinguish “between those who exploit prostitutes and those who could increase the safety and security of prostitutes…”

The laws also prohibit brothels, which can guarantee greater safety through access to bodyguards and screening of clients.

Bill C-36, which is the proposed revision of the current legislation on prostitution, is said to follow the “Nordic” model, wherein the purchase of sex is against the law, but the sale of it is not. Canada is adapting this model by also prohibiting the sale of sex in areas where children might be present.

Response to the proposed legislation has been varied. Proponents advocate punishing those who perpetuate the sex industry (pimps and clients, for example), rather than those in the profession who might need help and not a prison sentence. Those against are composed of both advocates for total legalization and advocates for total criminalization, rather than this split that punishes one half of the transaction.

Tom Flanagan, political activist and previous professor of political science at the University of Calgary, recently wrote an opinions piece for the Globe and Mail on what he called bill C-36’s “bizarre work of moral panic.” In the piece, he describes his support for criminalizing the manifestations of sex work (for example, brothels, solicitation, and living off prostitution) as a form of harm reduction.

The Globe and Mail also recently reported that the bill might not be constitutionally sound. In an interview with the Globe, Canada’s Criminal Lawyers Association member Leonardo S. Russomanno said that “It really comes down to whether [C-36] would survive a section one [Charter] challenge. And, in my view, it would fail to do so on the basis it’s not proportionate at all.”

Bill C-36 has also been criticized for not addressing the safety of sex workers, as a joint study by UBC and the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative (GSHI) of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS shows that the Vancouver Police Department’s similar policy model does not deter violence against sex workers and in fact further endangers them.

An author of the UBC-GSHI report, Andrea Krüsi, explained in an interview with the Peak that, “In the context where clients are criminalized, it’s still in the shared interests of the client and the sex worker to be undetected by the police and so this led to women having to rush screening their clients.”

The study further reports an inability to negotiate with clients on terms, getting pushed out of safer, more residential or commercial areas, and sex workers being unable to contact police for help.

These issues are relevant in the context of “Trade Secrets for Sex Workers,” a manual produced by the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities that details safety guidelines for sex workers. Among the tips listed are “Make friends with the beat cops in your neighbourhood, if possible. They’ll watch out for you more and take it more seriously if someone assaults you,” and “Look at the customer and check his level of sobriety and emotional state. … Be sure of his mental state before entering the vehicle.”

The federal legislative development was followed by a timely and local showing of the 1984 documentary Hookers on Davie at the Fox Cabaret on June 25. The film details the lives of sex workers on Davie Street, culminating in the Alliance for the Safety of Prostitutes staging the first ever protest in Canada for sex workers’ rights: the protest was specifically against the Concerned Residents of the West End which was trying to oust the sex workers from the neighbourhood. Protest signs also called for “Alternatives not laws,” as at the time sex workers were pushing for changes to laws regarding sex work.

As it stands, parliament has until December of this year to draft and pass new legislation. Until then, prosecution regarding sex work and sex workers will proceed case-by-case, evaluated based on public interest. Neil MacKenzie, with the Communications Counsel of the Criminal Justice Branch, states that, “When a review was conducted of open prosecution files following the Bedford decision there were fewer than 30 ongoing cases in British Columbia involving the Criminal Code sections in question. The number of prostitution-related prosecutions in BC is quite limited at present.”

Originally published in the Other Press.

For further details on this ongoing issue, here’s a very helpful article from the Globe and Mail.

What female characters do modern children have to look up to?

The continued disdain for female leads in media is frustrating. As a woman who has remained intrigued by pop culture since childhood, I still find my options of females to look up to limited. As a child, while there were certainly female characters in all the children’s shows I watched, few were leads; even then, I didn’t have a lot to consider “inspiring” from my selection. The ’90s were one thing, but to see that option still limited 20 years later is worrisome. Who do children have to look up to now in finding an example of a female voice?

Top left to bottom right: Fionna and Cake, Princess Bubblegum, Marceline, Flame Princess

Top left to bottom right: Fionna and Cake, Princess Bubblegum, Marceline, Flame Princess

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Contravening contraception

Freedom’s tricky. Debates on rights and freedoms seem to inevitably collapse into arguments over which rights trump which, with a free(dom)-for-all wrestle to guarantee liberty. On June 30, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of supply store Hobby Lobby’s refusal to cover women’s access to certain kinds of birth control (including morning-after pills and two kinds of IUDs), setting themselves soundly on the side of religious rights and freedoms.

This is an astounding step back, and one that I wasn’t anticipating. I’ve written about the contraceptive controversy in the States previously, and I hadn’t known that women’s access to birth control was back up for debate—especially under the guise of protecting religious rights.

Image from nurse-practitioners-and-physician-assistants.advanceweb.com

Image from nurse-practitioners-and-physician-assistants.advanceweb.com

I do value religious freedom. I value it because I am not religious; I don’t want anyone’s beliefs or values (religious or otherwise) imposed on me; and I value the tenet that separates religion and state, so no religions are state-sanctioned and no government is religiously sanctioned.

Republicans far and wide are lauding the “win for religious freedoms,” but I disagree with religion’s entering the healthcare coverage debate in the first place. That expression, “Your freedom to swing your fists ends at my nose”? Your religious freedom ends at several points, including my access to necessary healthcare. An employer’s personal, religious beliefs should not have bearing on an employee’s health or personal life. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community.”

Furthermore, this landmark case could have the ludicrous consequences of allowing any closely held companies with any religious beliefs to side-step covering any kind of healthcare. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg further writes, “Would the exemption … extend to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations?”

There are droves of proponents who assert that you pill-guzzling women can have as much sex as you want, just so long as it doesn’t affect their chequebooks. Essentially, have all the sex you want, but either purchase your birth control at your own expense, or live with the consequences of your sex life.

Here’s a widely accepted truth: birth control, and healthcare in general, is expensive. Time reports that the pill can cost about $25/month without coverage—that’s $300 over the course of a year. Justice Ginsburg, one of the members who dissented on the Supreme Court’s ruling, noted that contraception such as the IUD would cost a month’s pay for minimum-wage workers without the healthcare coverage.

Another widely accepted truth: women are more likely than men to find themselves in poverty: according to Time, a third of American women live in poverty or “right on the brink of it”; “nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women…”; “the average woman is paid 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, and that figure is much lower for black and Latina women [64 cents and 55 cents for every dollar made by a white man, respectively].” These facts become more relevant to the birth control debate as the Time piece continues: “More than half of the babies born to moms who are under 30 are born to unmarried mothers…”; “75% of unmarried mothers are under 30, and only 7% of them have finished college. Single motherhood and lack of a college degree are two of the strongest indicators of poverty.” (I use statistics on American women in this article, but for some statistics relating to Canadian women, check out this info on CanadianWomen.org.)

For women in poverty, it is necessary to have financial aid in accessing birth control and healthcare. Without subsidization mitigating at least some of the costs, the supposed “open door” to birth control might as well be closed.

Allegations about the astounding costs of birth control chipping into taxpayer’s hard-earned moneys are without founding. Granted, this article was written back when contraception was up for debate roughly two years ago, but it remains relevant. In the Huffington Post piece, June Carbone writes that “[s]ince the Obama administration decision was based on a calculation that this would result in lower healthcare costs overall, it would not raise the premiums paid to insurance companies … It is infinitely less expensive to fund contraceptive services than to pay for pregnancy and childbirth—or avoidable hysterectomies.”

One issue in all of this tangled mess is that contraception is portrayed as a “woman’s issue”—and is consequently dismissed. Women are generally burdened with the research, administration, and costs of contraception, as most contraceptives are produced for women rather than men; the onus is placed on women to not get pregnant, and to deal with the consequences if they do.

It’s as if, because women bear both the evidence and the results of a pregnancy, men have no role in the matter. I in no way think that all men are inclined to jump ship over a (baby)bump in the road; nonetheless, you’d think they were, based on the near nonexistence of male contraception, and the complete lack of discussion over how inaccessibility of birth control could affect the male participants. These aren’t spontaneous, virgin births that we’re trying to control, y’know. Contraception is relevant to all people and all groups: overpopulation is an ever-growing concern; children living in poverty continues to plague our societies; men should be partners in their relationships, contributing to the decision of when having children is/is not appropriate; and the list continues.

Clearly, birth control isn’t “just a women’s issue,” but it’s blatantly sexist to dismiss any issue as just a women’s issue. An issue that affects roughly 51 per cent of the population should never be preceded by a patronizing and belittling “just.” It is an issue—plain and simple.

From here, I think a significant problem is that of the propensity for society to judge women based on their sex lives. I recently wrote about Harvey Mansfield, who had asserted that we should return to the times of “feminine modesty”—read: chastity. Of course these discussions concerning women’s birth control coverage have led to noxious insinuations about women’s desire to have “consequence-free” sex. (Since he had so much to say about the topic, here’s a handful of tweets from Erick Erickson, conservative blogger and editor-in-chief of RedState.com.)

Why is a desire for consequence-free sex seen as so bad? Legions of men have grown up with the image of masculinity as participating in casual sex, no strings attached; women who participate in casual sex culture are said to be having sex “like a man”; and I can’t think of anyone who would be hoping to deal with an unwanted or untimely pregnancy. I see nothing wrong with choosing to participate in casual sex, choosing to participate in a sexually monogamous relationship, or choosing to remain abstinent—all are entirely personal choices.

On the subject of casual sex, though, consequence-free sex seems to be an issue as soon as and only when women get involved in it, and it’s an issue of many layers. First off, women are valued as mothers, especially stay-at-home moms as they help boost the economy: BusinessInsider.com recently reported that stay-at-home moms put in an average of “94.7 hours in a typical workweek, and it would cost $112,962 a year to replace her.” Society also tends to value women’s virginity and sexual purity, which is achieved through control over women’s bodies, actions, and lives—hence the limited accessibility of birth control.

Supporting these assertions about not wanting to fund women’s sex lives is obviously contentious, but it’s also fractured by a spiderweb of other issues. Contraception isn’t even only necessary for preventing pregnancy, as it can also be necessary medication for health issues like Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.

Even if preventing births were the sole function of contraception though, we come right back around to the same issues: those of cost (which is a non-issue as far as taxpayers are concerned), religion (which should not have bearing on anyone’s access to healthcare and medication), and the demonization of women’s sex lives. Based on the lack of discussion about men having sex with women, I can only surmise that men are free to be sexually active, but women are not. Do men’s sexual freedoms then “trump” women’s health and lives, if men are free to sexually act on women but the burden is on women to either prevent pregnancy or become mothers (ready or not)?

Sexuality and becoming a mother are personal matters, and subsidized access to birth control would allow them to remain so. I can respect the fact that some religions see morning-after pills and certain forms of contraception as tantamount to abortion and cannot support their use on moral grounds—that is the business of those individuals. It is not the business of a business—religious, closely held, or otherwise—to impose the employers’ religious beliefs on the employees. I understand that it’s natural for debates on rights to become a question of what trumps what; in this instance, though, I think the scales of justice were heavily weighted to side with the religious corporation. Religion should not trump health, or force a woman to become a mother before she’s ready.

A couple of interesting articles for further reading!
Further developments as Christian institution Wheaton College also attempts to side-step covering birth control.
The case of over-the-counter birth control. 

Peter MacKay’s (hopefully) incidental sexism

Justice Minister Peter MacKay has been in the news a lot recently. From his statement that the lack of female judges in Canada is because women “aren’t applying” due to their need to be at home, to his poorly planned Mother’s Day and Father’s Day emails, to his announcement that prostitution will be illegal in Canada, which can (and will) put sex workers in greater danger.

Photo by Chris Wattie for Reuters

“Surely this photo won’t come back to haunt me.’ /Photo by Chris Wattie for Reuters

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Let’s talk about sex(ual consent)

I’m sick of hearing that rape culture isn’t real. Dismissal of sexual assault is part of what allows sexual assault to continue happening: if you don’t acknowledge that something occurs, obviously you can’t begin to stop it.

Those who dismiss rape often lean on weak supports, spitting accusations and emphasizing the rape survivor’s blame. I recently read an article by Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, in which he put forward such blame-based reproaches for rape—though the reproaches were cloaked in a supposed understanding of what feminism is.

Harvey Mansfield, professor at Harvard. Image from news.harvard.edu

Harvey Mansfield, professor at Harvard. Image from news.harvard.edu

In “Feminism and Its Discontents,” Mansfield discusses a female sexual assault victim at Harvard who, from what I understand, was intoxicated and unable to consent to any sexual activity. Mansfield describes her as “an apparent victim of sexual assault, writing anonymously but very publicly in an open letter to the student newspaper that gained everyone’s attention… [she] felt obliged to call herself ‘hopeless, powerless, betrayed and worthless.’”

If you can’t quite tell, that thing that’s slathered on Mansfield’s words like so much icing on a cake is skepticism—and it’s not terribly appetizing.

Read the article for yourself to get a fuller idea of his argument, but to condense it down to a few very brief points,

1) Mansfield states that the woman who wrote the open letter “does not appear to have been raped” based on the criminal code’s definition. In actual fact, the criminal code’s definition of sexual assault does fit with the bit I know about the assault, where it states that “Any person subject to this chapter who … commits a sexual act upon another person when the other person is incapable of consenting to the sexual act due to … impairment by any drug, intoxicant, or other similar substance, and that condition is known or reasonably should be known by the person.” Mansfield has trouble with this because he conflates sexual assault and rape. Although all rape is sexual assault, not all sexual assault is rape.

2) Mansfield claims to understand feminism, under a reductive (and ignoring of a plethora of feminist perspectives) description of its principles: essentially, that there are no differences between men and women, and that gender is socially constructed. This is immediately problematic, as not all feminist ideologies assert either or both of these supposed principles.

3) Mansfield then asserts that, taking the Harvard woman’s experience as an example, we see that the feminist ideals of sexual liberation and independence doesn’t work for women, and might not work for men either.

Mansfield doesn’t understand rape and sexual assault; doesn’t understand women’s wants and needs; doesn’t understand feminism; and his answer to the rape culture and hookup culture—two different cultures, though he conflates them—is a return to the days of feminine mystique and modesty, which he idealizes.

Although I see Mansfield as the largely harmless if perhaps curmudgeonly product of a patriarchal upbringing, his statements shouldn’t be shrugged off.

While he lists all of two feminist tenets, Mansfield completely misses one of the paramount principles of many feminist perspectives: that of a woman’s right to choose, especially as that choice pertains to her own body and life. He asserts that the feminine modesty of yore gave women time to decide if they wanted to consent to sex (although he describes this as more like consenting to courtship).

We don’t need “feminine modesty” (as Mansfield puts it) for women to decide if they want to consent to sex or not. We need people growing up with the idea that conscious consent to sexual activity is paramount—and that a lack of vocal or prolonged protest is not the same as consent. We need a society that doesn’t value women based on their sexual worth. We need a society that encourages women to consider what they want sexually, and to feel comfortable saying an enthusiastic yes or an adamant no—whatever is right for them. Contrary to Mansfield, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with “good sex,” even as he attempts to paint it as a “kind of animal simplicity”; but I’m also well-aware that there’s no one thing that is right for all women. That’s where Mansfield makes one of many errors, in suggesting that one woman’s needs are necessarily indicative of every woman’s needs.

He states that feminine modesty also made better men out of men, as they strove to deserve women (sex) and earn a shot at marriage and children. It isn’t the responsibility of women to make better men out of men—especially not through Mansfield’s implied suggestion of sex as the carrot to men’s donkey.

He blames feminism and the assault victim’s actions for her sexual assault, stating, “The anonymous Harvard woman by getting drunk was unfortunately helping to pressure herself into consenting to a very bad experience. But she is right that the pressure comes with the encouragement of the [hookup] culture. And the culture comes from the dogmas of feminism that made this mess for women and men too.” This is blatant victim blaming which ignores the fact that there was a party who perpetrated the sexual assault.

It isn’t surprising that he confuses the feminist value of choice with encouraging promiscuity, as he also shows himself to be confused about the meaning of rape culture. He asks, “Are most men really potential rapists as the term ‘rape culture’ suggests, or are some of them merely taking what is offered?” The term “rape culture” doesn’t suggest that all men are potential rapists; it suggests that there are certain attitudes in society which perpetuate sexual assault, normalize it, and justify defending such inhumane crimes. Rapists don’t take what is offered; they take what is assumed to be offered, or knowingly take that which is not willingly given. That’s what makes it rape.

Mansfield isn’t alone in this dismissal of rape culture; George Will, writer for the Washington Post since 1974 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1977, recently received backlash for his opinions piece on universities and sexual assault. He responded to the backlash by saying “I think I take sexual assault somewhat more seriously than the senators do because I think there’s a danger now of defining sexual assault so broadly, so capriciously that it begins to trivialize the seriousness of it… When remarks become sexual assault, improper touching … we begin to blur distinctions that are important to preserve if you believe as the senators purport to believe, that this is a serious matter.”

These are important, accomplished people making claims about what sexual assault is, and I know that their views are echoed by others. They dismiss sexual assault as “taking what is offered” if the victim is intoxicated, or if it’s “only” improper touching. That is the rape culture which Mansfield tried so hard to denounce and so unknowingly participated in.