Workers Vanguard No. 1055
31 October 2014
Government Out of the Bedroom!
No to Crackdown on Prostitution!
The following article originally appeared in Spartacist Canada No. 182 (Fall 2014), newspaper of our comrades of the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste.
In eight years, the Harper Tories [Conservative Party under Prime Minister Stephen Harper] have waged war on pretty much everyone: the old, the young and the sick, scientists, environmentalists, veterans, Mennonites, Native people, Muslims and, always, trade unionists. Now it is prostitutes and their clients who, if the government has its way, are to be abolished. Conservative justice minister Peter MacKay introduced Bill C-36 on June 4, snarling that “the purchase and sale of sex has never been illegal in Canada. That changes today.” This law won’t get rid of prostitution, but it will make it much more dangerous.
In late 2013, after a seven-year legal battle waged by former sex workers Terri-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott, and Amy Lebovitch, a prostitute, the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s reactionary prostitution laws. While prostitution itself is not illegal in Canada, nearly every activity associated with it has been. The bourgeoisie’s hand-picked judges had to admit that these laws forced sex workers into dangerous situations in order to avoid arrest and thus violated their constitutional rights. The court gave Ottawa a year to come up with new legislation. Bill C-36, the “Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act,” is the Tories’ malignant reply.
Bill C-36 revives and sharpens previous restrictions against working from the safer conditions of a home or a brothel and against “living off the avails,” which targets people providing security or other paid services to a prostitute. It bars advertising in print media or on the internet and makes it a crime to have “communication” about selling sex anywhere near schools, playgrounds and daycare centres. Above all, the very purchase of sex will become illegal and those convicted will face up to five years in jail. As Bedford pointed out, “under the proposed new law a man will likely have more chance of going to jail for paying a woman for sex than for raping her on a date or beating his wife” (rabble.ca, 20 June).
The Trotskyist League strongly opposes these measures. We are for the decriminalization of prostitution—paying or being paid for sex is no crime! Because it is usually heavily regulated by capitalist laws, Marxists consider prostitution to be a “crime without a victim,” like drug use, gambling, pornography and consensual sex with minors. In the eyes of the working class such activities are not crimes and those who pursue them are not criminals. We oppose all government interference into people’s sexual lives. Our guiding principle is that of effective consent, which means mutual agreement and understanding as opposed to coercion.
The Tories’ Moral Crusaders
The Tories, who have slashed billions from social programs and caused immeasurable harm to poor and working-class women, have fraudulently promoted Bill C-36 as a way of protecting victims of “exploitation.” In this they are backed by an unholy alliance of right-wing outfits like REAL Women of Canada and the feminist groups that make up the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution.
In 2011, as the Bedford case was winding its way through the legal system, a lawyer for REAL Women abandoned even the pretence of concern for the well-being of prostitutes in his appearance before the Ontario Court of Appeal. After Ranjan Agarwal called prostitution “an attack on the fundamental values of modern Canadian society” that should be “eradicated” a judge asked if he saw the risk of violence to sex workers as mere “collateral damage.” The REAL Women lawyer replied that this would be a “sad side effect” but that parliament should “send a signal” through laws aimed at ending prostitution (National Post, 16 June 2011). Bill C-36 sends that signal loud and clear.
A central theme of the campaign to sell this law is the false conflation of prostitution with “human trafficking” and “modern slavery.” This is pure sensationalism conjured up by MacKay and his religious and feminist allies to whip up support for their reactionary crusade. Kidnapping, debt bondage, sexual assault and beatings are real crimes. But there is a qualitative distinction between such coercion and the fundamentally consensual act between a prostitute and a client to exchange money for sex. To identify all illegal border crossings and exchanges of sex for money with “slavery” is to target immigrant women for state repression. Those ensnared in the “anti-trafficking” dragnet are more likely to be jailed and deported than anything. Indeed, anti-trafficking laws are a key part of the bourgeoisie’s drive against so-called “illegal” immigrants.
A decade ago, in an article titled “Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Woman, Anti-Sex: U.S./UN Crusade Against ‘Sex Trafficking’,” we exposed this hysteria as a cynical and dangerous business because:
“it both legitimizes government persecution of immigrants and invokes state authority to intervene as moral arbiter in our most intimate affairs. It bolsters the anti-sex witchhunt as a whole and deflects attention from the real violence perpetrated every day against women and children under this class system.”
—Spartacist [English edition] No. 58, Spring 2004
We demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants, and no deportations.
Prohibition Fuels Police Violence Against Prostitutes
The Tories are keen to tout government measures aimed at the so-called “rescue” of prostitutes. What this will mean in practice was vividly described by the Sex Professionals of Canada: “Our colleagues are arrested, handcuffed, photographed, fingerprinted, and thrown in jail. The only way out, without a criminal record, is to agree to forced ‘re-education’ at one of the ‘exit’ programs.... [T]hose who seek to ‘rescue’ us are actually perpetrators of violence against us” (spoc.ca, 17 December 2013). An American prostitute interviewed in the London Economist captured the danger posed by police: “Screening for cops [is now] the priority over screening for rapists, thieves, kidnappers” (9 August).
Sure enough, in January, with the ink barely dry on the Bedford decision, police in 30 towns and cities across Canada unleashed “Operation Northern Spotlight.” In the name of cracking down on “trafficking,” this vicious campaign targeted over 330 women across the country. “Two or four police officers show up at the door and demand to see ID, bombard you with questions then come in under the pretense of looking for trafficked people,” said Valerie Scott. While no sex workers appear to have been “rescued,” there were plenty of lurid headlines about “potential sex slaves.”
In Vancouver, where the cops are particularly notorious for forcing prostitutes to have sex with them in order to avoid arrest, the police strategy has for years been almost identical to the Tories’ proposed new law. Successive “shame the john” campaigns and outcries against prostitution have driven desperate prostitutes—many of them Native women or drug addicts—into the most dangerous parts of the city. One such area is the Downtown Eastside, where serial killer Robert Pickton chose most of his victims. Prostitutes take the brunt of hatred of women: Pickton targeted these women because he thought he could get away with it. Indeed, police indifference to the disappearance of dozens of Native and other women allowed Pickton to carry out his hideous crimes for as long as he did.
More often than not prostitution is degrading and exploitative. But prostitutes are not victims of the act of prostitution itself. Rather, it is the moral condemnation, bourgeois hypocrisy and criminalization that stigmatizes them and sets them up for violence. As such, prostitution dramatically manifests all the racism, brutality and social inequality of the bourgeois order.
“Perversion”—Whatever Peter MacKay Isn’t Into
It is a certainty that whenever the bourgeoisie launches a moral crusade, it will be done with the maximum hypocrisy. As MacKay vowed to “crack down on pimps and johns,” he slammed those who pay for sex as “perverts.” One must ask, does this include his parliamentary colleagues? The prostitutes who work in the Ottawa area are showing great restraint in their principled refusal to identify the politicians who seek their services. As Terri-Jean Bedford, also the author of Dominatrix on Trial, quipped, “I am asked if Mr. Harper is still calling me and asking me to accept a job in the Senate, as a government whip. I had to tell him to stop calling. I could not accept the job. I was afraid I would run into too many former clients on Parliament Hill” (rabble.ca, 20 June).
The drive against prostitution is another one of the moral panics that the ruling class regularly whips up against various expressions of human sexuality, from pornography to homosexuality and sex with young people. The purpose of these crusades is to regiment the population by fostering fear and ignorance, while bolstering the repressive powers of the capitalist state. This state—centrally including the cops, courts and prisons—is not a neutral arbiter, but the instrument for the suppression of the exploited by the exploiters. As such it plays a key role in enforcing the oppression of women (and youth) alongside organized religion and the patriarchal family, which remains the central instrument for the subjugation of women under capitalism.
Prostitution is closely linked to the oppression of women, the oldest social inequality in human history, and its roots go back to the origins of class society itself. With the rise of private property and a patriarchal, property-owning ruling class, monogamy for the woman was enforced precisely so that the paternity of the children would be known. The family is critical for the ruling class to pass on its property to “legitimate” heirs and to instill obedience to bourgeois codes of morality.
In his groundbreaking 1884 work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels noted that the institution of monogamous marriage was stamped “from the very beginning with its specific character of monogamy for the woman only.” For centuries, it was the norm that the daughters of the ruling class were hawked to the highest bidder—a crass form of prostitution, as Engels put it, in which the women rents out her body not in a piecemeal fashion, but once and for all. It is the institution of the family that brings money into sexual relations.
Sharing the Sheets: Tories, Feminists and Reformists
Several feminist groups have been among the loudest champions of the Tories’ anti-prostitution crusade. Among them are Vancouver Rape Relief and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies. Indeed, in voicing “grave concerns about the exploitation that is inherent in prostitution” and “the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body,” the Tory bill made a calculated nod to feminist sensibilities. This had Vancouver blogger Meghan Murphy, a self-described leftist, swooning. “All this kind of thrills me,” she wrote, “This language is explicitly feminist in that it names men as the problem…” (feministcurrent.com, 6 June).
One could not wish for a clearer example of the bankruptcy of feminism than this open embrace of a deeply repressive anti-woman law. Far from an aberration, this bloc with bourgeois reaction is typical of a large section of feminists, who have for decades lined up behind the bourgeoisie’s anti-sex witchhunts, from the anti-porn hysteria to the endless panics whipped up over supposed “child abuse” in daycare centres. These feminists promote themselves as protectors of women and children, but their remedy is to appeal to the state for more or stronger laws and more vigilance by police. In supporting the forces of capitalist reaction, such feminists serve to shore up the institution of the family, where much of the real and terrible damage that is inflicted on youth and women takes place.
As for the [social-democratic] New Democrats [NDP] with their priggish Christian Fabian roots, they prize bourgeois respectability above all else. A 2013 NDP policy convention spiked a proposal to repeal the prostitution laws. The NDP has offered a few amendments to the Tory bill, but will not oppose it. More honest is Manitoba’s NDP provincial minister of justice Andrew Swan who appeared at parliamentary hearings in Ottawa in July to support the Tory proposal, suggesting amendments to better protect the new law against challenges from sex workers!
The Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which says it is sympathetic to the plight of prostitutes, calls the Tories’ new law “good news” because it will supposedly “decriminalize women involved in prostitution” (Partisan, June 2014). Worse yet, they actually oppose the decriminalization of prostitution as such, an elementary position for any self-declared Marxist. They falsely equate the clients of prostitutes with pimps, a layer of social scum that exists only because prostitution is criminalized. The RCP’s retrograde views flow in part from the Stalinist/Maoist glorification of the patriarchal family as a model, “the building block of socialism.” At the same time, these self-described “proletarian feminists” echo their bourgeois big sisters, claiming that “in the vast majority of cases” prostitution is inseparable from the “ramifications of human trafficking” (Partisan, January 2014).
The Proletarian Road to Women’s Liberation
The Tories’ drive against sex workers has come under fire from various quarters. As the jails overflow with the victims of Ottawa’s “war on crime,” there is real unease over criminalizing yet another section of the population. Many other feminist organizations have spoken out against the law. So, notably, has the president of the Ontario wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Fred Hahn. In a July 9 National Post op-ed piece, Hahn called for “full decriminalization” and declared:
“Trade unions must support the health and safety of everyone, especially those working in precarious industries. We therefore stand in solidarity with sex workers and all organizations that are committed to defeating this regressive and dangerous legislation.”
In denouncing the Tories’ reactionary crusade, we Marxists also say that it is necessary to fight for the unionization of prostitutes and for access to quality housing and education and whatever else they may need.
Feminism, including its radical, socialist or “proletarian” variants, is counterposed to Marxism. For feminism, the main division in society is between men and women rather than class versus class. This outlook is shared by the substantial numbers of feminists who to their credit oppose the drive against prostitution. Feminism operates entirely within the framework of bourgeois rule. It is politically incapable of resolving the most basic aspects of women’s oppression because it is not premised on the destruction of the capitalist system that is the main source of women’s oppression today.
The social alienation of a system in which the vast mass of people have to sell their labour power to enrich the very few is compounded by institutionalized inequalities of race, nationality and sex. For Marxists, the liberation of women cannot be separated from the liberation of all the exploited and oppressed. To create genuinely free and equal relations between people in all spheres requires socialist revolutions worldwide to uproot the decaying capitalist system and open the road to the abolition of private property.
This alone will make possible the construction of an international collectivized economy based on the highest level of technology and science, laying the material basis for replacing the family and drawing women fully into social production. Prostitution and its social functions will die out only as the institution of the family is replaced. This is also the precondition for the genuine liberation of women. The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste is dedicated to the task of building a revolutionary workers party that can lead the struggle to overthrow the barbaric rule of capitalism.