Canadians Get a Good Spanking – Nicholas Little

By H. Varlan http://www.flickr.com/photos/horiavarlan/4268924216/

In September the Ontario Superior Court struck down three Criminal Code provisions that made the exchange of sex for money in Canada all but impossible without breaking the law. Communicating for the purpose of prostitution, prostitutes sharing their income with others and maintaining or being found in a brothel will all cease to be offences in the province of Ontario. If upheld on appeal, the ruling may eventually lead to the decriminalization of prostitution throughout Canada.

At a press conference immediately following the ruling, professional dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, one of three sex workers who brought the court challenge forward, was asked how she intends to celebrate her victory. “I’m gonna spank some ass – legally!” she replied, brandishing her black riding crop.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s backside must be feeling rather sore. Activists would have been thrilled with even one of the laws being struck down, but nobody expected Madam Justice Susan Himel to gut three of the major provisions at once or to deny the government an 18 month delay before her ruling takes effect. The milestone decision left the federal government scrambling.

A Globe & Mail editorial published in the same week lamented that the task of liberalizing prostitution law belongs to elected legislators, not an appointed judge. “Who is she to weigh all the potential harms at stake and decide matters, on either side? Who says she can do a better job than Parliament?” the editors asked with indignation that one doubts even they took seriously.

After all, in 2006 the Canadian Parliament’s own Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws urged the government to “recognize that the status quo with respect to Canada’s laws dealing with prostitution is unacceptable” and that the laws may cause more harm than they prevent. These calls for Parliamentarians to act fell on deaf ears with no legal change even attempted. And on dead ears as well. The Subcommittee’s inquiry was partly in response to serial killer Robert Pickton’s admission of murdering 49 women on his Vancouver pig farm throughout the 1990s and 2000s. If four dozen women’s deaths were insufficient to motivate MPs, it seems unlikely that risk-averse politicians in the current minority government will take action anytime soon.

Still, even opponents of decriminalisation seem to realize that the ruling means they have ultimately lost the battle. In an opinion piece about the judgment, National Post columnist Barbara Kay spat sour grapes at “shameful” prostitutes and “pathetic” and “pathological” swingers. Despite going through the motions, Kay conceded that it is now only a matter of time until sex work is legal across the land. “The challenge will doubtless go up to the Supreme Court of Canada,” she whined, “And I am pretty sure I know what way it will go.” Her hunch is based on the Supreme Court’s history of holding Parliament to account when it denies groups their Charter rights. In other words: done deal.

Kay’s column lays bare the tensions surrounding this and similar social justice debates in Canada. The stereotype of a progressive nation of pot-smoking liberals underestimates the passive-aggression of a people keen to see themselves as champions of social justice but conflicted about what that means on the ground. In Canada, landmark changes like same-sex marriage, the decriminalization of prostitution and the inevitable decriminalization of drug use are not the result of forward-thinking citizens who can’t bear irrational policy. They tend to be the product of slow, painstaking activism by individuals who mount costly court challenges. Time and again, minorities have had to force Canada against its will to recognize the equal status of all its citizens.

In this sense, Terri-Jean Bedford’s ass-spanking intentions aren’t just a silly quip from a hooker high on her hard-won judicial victory. Bedford’s arrival at court in head-to-toe leather, riding crop in hand, may have been jarring to some, but it is a fitting image for a nation being brought into line by a woman who refuses to be forced into submission. After all, she’s the professional.

Nicholas Little is an Anglo-Albertan who decamped to Montreal sometime in the late nineties “to learn French and be gay”. He then moved to Ottawa, Ontario, where he taught workshops on how to give better blowjobs and moonlighted as an escort for bicurious bureaucrats on Parliament Hill. He also helped found POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work, Educate & Resist), an organization of current and former sex workers advocating for recognition of their labour, Charter and human rights. Since 2009, Nicholas has lived and worked in the UK. You can find more of his writing at www.ickaprick.com or contact him at nico [at] ickaprick [dot] com