Hookers, hacks, and Himel


The Citizen‘s Dan Gardner is impatient with the columnists cawing against Justice Susan Himel’s prostitution ruling. This morning he exasperatedly tweeted at them that “You don’t have to agree. You do have to read”—that is, read what Himel wrote. I’m on Dan’s side in this debate, but, hey, isn’t he being a little unfair and obnoxious? Surely respectable writers like Daphne Bramham wouldn’t denounce the Himel decision in such strong terms without examining the evidence:

If prostitution were a job freely chosen, as the pro-legalization forces would have us believe, it’s unlikely that the average age of entry into that workforce would be 14.

Damn, I guess Dan was right after all. This soundbite is a poor choice for an opening salvo against Himel, since it came up specifically in her hearing of the evidence from supporters of the existing law [emphasis mine]:

I find that Drs. Raymond and Poulin were more like advocates than experts offering independent opinions to the court. At times, they made bold, sweeping statements that were not reflected in their research. For example, some of Dr. Raymond’s statements on prostitutes were based on her research on trafficked women. As well, during cross-examination, it was revealed that some of Dr. Poulin’s citations for his claim that the average age of recruitment into prostitution is 14 years old were misleading or incorrect. In his affidavit, Dr. Poulin suggested that there have been instances of serial killers targeting prostitutes who worked at indoor locations; however, his sources do not appear to support his assertion. I found it troubling that Dr. Poulin stated during cross-examination that it is not important for scholars to present information that contradicts their own findings (or findings which they support).

Himel’s judgment gives the impression that she carefully scrutinized and weighted the massive body of evidence before her; Bramham, by contrast, uses cherry-picked stats in a way that recalls the old proverb about the drunk and the lamppost. Indeed, her column is such an impossibly confused piece of argument that one is tempted to think the drunkenness literal.

Like other critics of Himel, Bramham sneers at the idea that selling sex can possibly constitute an exercise of “choice”; you know this, she suggests, because you wouldn’t want your sister to be a prostitute. Well, I sure as hell wouldn’t want my sister to be a columnist at a Postmedia newspaper; I did that job, and, given my sister’s other options, the uncertainty and meagre pay certainly wouldn’t maximize her happiness or her income. It’s nonsensical to criticize someone’s means of earning a living from the standpoint that she could just presumably go be a master mariner or an accountant tomorrow if she didn’t have an imaginary gun to her head.

We are all trying to get by within a context of skills, credentials, abilities, and tastes, and these things are limited by our life experiences (particularly the horrible ones) and our inherent endowments. This is not the prostitute’s condition; it is the human condition. Sneering comments about the meaning and value of choice don’t reflect well on any commentator’s realism.

They’re especially odious when realism is precisely what those commentators claim to be advocating. Bramham writes: “Selling sex is dehumanizing and soul-destroying to most of the people who do it. That’s not a moral judgment. It’s fact.” This couldn’t be more embarrassing if she’d shouted “SCIENCE!” instead, could it? Has this soul-destruction been quantified by a graduate student? Is there an SI unit of dehumanization? Or is the columnist simply reluctant to admit that there might, in fact, be some irrational prejudices and scolding Methodist ghosts swirling around in her hindbrain?

Oh, not possible: Bramham eventually comes around to advocating the progressive, presumptively sex-positive “Nordic model” of prostitution—having either forgotten or never realized that the crux of the Nordic model is decriminalization of the supply side of the sex trade. It’s the pre-Himel law that’s inconsistent with the Nordic model! As Himel’s decision points out!

In Sweden, where prostitution is approached as an aspect of male violence against women and children, buying sex and pimping are illegal, but the seller of sexual services is seen as a victim and not criminalized. Public education campaigns targeting buyers of sexual services have reduced demand. Intensive police training has led to a 300 per cent increase in arrests and a reduction of complaints that the law is too difficult to enforce.

This evidence suggests to me that Canada’s prohibition of all public communications for the purpose of prostitution is no longer in step with changing international responses. These legal regimes demonstrate that legislatures around the world are turning their minds to the protection of prostitutes, as well as preventing social nuisance. The communicating provision impairs the ability of prostitutes to communicate in order to minimize their risk of harm and, as such, does not constitute a minimal impairment of their rights.

I don’t mean to pick on Daphne Bramham in particular; she’s just the latest target to pop up, and the faults in her rhetoric, enormous and fatal though they are, don’t descend to the level of Barbara Kay, who is sure that legalizing prostitution today means she’ll be clapped in irons for being agin it tomorrow. Still, at least my friend Barbara is upfront about not giving a fig about any harm done to prostitutes by the law. I was criticized a little bit last week for suggesting that opponents of the Himel ruling, people who don’t like to entertain arguments about “harm”, should logically regard serial killers as Dexter-esque defenders—perhaps distasteful but in a sense admirable—of the social order they value so highly. I’m afraid this implication is hardly even disguised by Mrs. Kay: in her first column on Himel she brings up Robert Pickton explicitly, mentions in a flat, neutral way that his murder spree “seem to have been a strong motivation for [Himel’s] decision”, and goes on to dismiss the question of “harm” willy-nilly. You’re left to infer her feelings about Pickton: she doesn’t take an explicit position. I think I know that she would oppose his particular species of social activism, but given her arguments against harm reduction, I can’t really account for why she would.

Espousal of the Nordic model of supply-side decriminalization is probably more reasonable, and Bramham should be given credit for that, even if the idea collides with absolutely everything else she apparently believes. For myself, I’d prefer it if we could just get past our superstitions about power imbalance in technically victimless exchanges. Our law, in practice, now pretty much treats pot growers as Satan and pot smokers as delusional, lazy unfortunates; suppliers bad, demanders OK. When it comes to prostitution we take the opposite tack: suppliers victims, demanders monsters—though at other times, for no better reason, the reverse approach has prevailed. I’m content to let the Nordic model be judged on a close, unbiased study of its practical effects (and I certainly do believe that policy surrounding prostitution should facilitate, even encourage exit from it), but at root, do all these just-so stories make sense?

My ideology is that it takes two to tango and that people should be allowed to tango. Nobody wants to argue for a man’s right to buy commoditized sex, just as he buys commoditized brainpower (in theory) when he buys the Vancouver Sun or the commoditized sweat of Mexicans when he buys garlic and oranges from California. The anti-prostitution regiment, though it may appear in our minds arrayed in the black bonnets and hoop skirts of our Victorian foremothers, seem to me like nothing more than degraded Marxists or hippies carping about alienation, or about how we don’t deal with each other as real human beings, maaaan. We commoditize each other and are commoditized; that’s where everything that lifts us above the miseries of subsistence farming comes from.

And that’s really pretty OK. Unless you’ve breathed in too much nonsense borrowed from nitwit German philosophizing about “the I and the thou”, you know that capitalist alienation doesn’t prevent civilized persons from forming genuine connections, or acting with decency and kindness, within a client-servant framework. As prostitutes will be the first to tell you. My argument here would probably seem stronger if I had some good, obvious objects of pathos to parade—if, for instance, ex-johns wrote as many blogs and books and news articles as ex-hookers do. But that’s the price of monsterizing the john: people can blather on about how “prostitution is violence” without even having seen or heard of the widowers, the social castoffs, and the deformed and disabled who make up part of pretty much every whore’s clientele. (Whether that whore is male or female.)

This is not to say that a lot of johns aren’t woman-haters: the only question, absolutely the only question, is how best to protect the women. Which brings us back to Bramham. She cites a case, and it is a fantastically rare case, in which a Vancouver “incall” prostitute was murdered by a client in an apartment being used as a massage parlour. (OMG! Another “Craigslist killing”!) But as Bramham presumably understands, many women are killed every year by husbands, boyfriends, and acquaintances under similar circumstances; we probably cannot expect prostitution policy to make sex for pay any safer than sex in general. So how is prostitution relevant to the example at all?

If anything, its relevance would seem to be that there was a record of the man’s internet browsing, a record of the cash transaction, and security-camera images of his arrival at the illicit business. The commercial aspect of his visit is almost certainly the reason he got caught; it’s the only way Bramham is able to give us the exact amount he paid. As an argument that violence against prostitutes can’t be deterred by making indoor security arrangements legal, her anecdatum isn’t just ineffective, it’s self-annihilating.

So, too, is the quote she provides from a UBC law professor who says “says at most the decision might change [prostitution] from ‘an extremely dangerous job to a very dangerous job’.” Here, again, the idea that prostitution should be made safer is just being laughed at. We have a whole universe of occupational health and safety regulations devoted to making extremely dangerous jobs very dangerous, don’t we? Are these rules somehow bad or ridiculous?

A useful exercise in assessing columns about prostitution is to substitute “taxi drivers” for “sex workers” and see how the rhetoric holds up. Driving cab carries the highest risk of violent assault and homicide of any commonly performed lawful profession—higher, easily, than that faced by cops. So imagine Bramham writing “What are the chances, if driving a taxi really were a choice, that so many who choose it are poor, under-educated immigrants or members of minority groups?” Whoa, the demographics check out and everything! Could Bramham find a lawyer to say that it is “naive, disingenuous and dangerous to frame cab driving only in terms of safety, choice and individual autonomy”? I wouldn’t bet against it. A journalist—particularly one who’s a brilliant, tireless reporter—can always find what she has decided to look for.


Hookers, hacks, and Himel

  1. Like other critics of Himel, Bramham sneers at the idea that selling sex can possibly constitute an exercise of “choice”; you know this, she suggests, because you wouldn't want your sister to be a prostitute. Well, I sure as hell wouldn't want my sister to be a columnist at a Postmedia newspaper; I did that job, and, given my sister's other options, the uncertainty and meagre pay certainly wouldn't maximize her happiness or her income. It's nonsensical to criticize someone's means of earning a living from the standpoint that she just could presumably go be a master mariner or an accountant tomorrow if she didn't have an imaginary gun to her head.

    I coiuldn't agree more.

    I heard the exact same argument on the radio the other day. One lady was arguing our side, and was being ganged up on by three others. They were trying to embarrass her, that nobody chooses prostitution, they were trying to say "how could you be so cruel to suggest that people choose this lifestyle?". They were suggesting that all prostitutes are essentially slaves, living lives against their free will, forced to do the bidding of others, and that they had never chosen the lifestyle in the first place, that they must have been abducted or fooled by unscrupulous people into the lifestyle.

    It was one of those times that you want to scream at the radio. It was the classic liberal "everybody is a victim, nobody is responsible" mentality.

    • It was one of those times that you want to scream at the radio.


      It's not difficult to imagine you screaming incoherently, for long periods of time, at all sorts of media.

  2. Very well argued sir.

  3. Geez, Colby, I agree with you that our current legislation is a mess, and I disagree with where Barbara Kay is going. But that doesn't mean you have to misrepresent her position.

    CC today, on denouncing while ignorant: Surely respectable writers like Daphne Bramham wouldn't denounce the Himel decision in such strong terms without examining the evidence.

    • CC today, on Kay's first article (Sept28): You're left to infer her feelings about Pickton: she doesn't take an explicit position. I think I know that she would oppose his particular species of social activism, but given her arguments against harm reduction, I can't really account for why she would.

      Kay (Oct 5), in an article entitled "Don't regulate prostitutes. Rescue them": [Pickton's victims], neither autonomous nor opportunistic, are victims of circumstances, who haven't the luxury of choice. These women don't need the “harm reduction” of legal enablement. They need rescue. Their plight would only worsen with legalization, because it would discourage efforts to save them.

      • I suppose it is fair, in a sense, to attack my critique of one BK column on the grounds that I didn't allude to a second one (though I did read it, and there's a link to it in my piece). But then I'm not sure how Barbara Kay can dismiss "harm reduction" one week and then use a harm-reduction argument against legalization the next. Are we quite sure the same individual wrote these? Seems like Barbara Kay 1 would tear Barbara Kay 2 a new one: "You're just falling into their trap by adopting a harm-reduction standard! What counts is the message a law sends, not its effect! Society has the right to protect itself!"

        • Well, then, let's get back to Barbara Kay 1: The reality is that high-end prostitutes already know how to look after themselves, while low-end prostitutes are usually just trying to get from one drug fix to another. They will have little interest in pre-screening their johns, because they are desperate women. Does anyone really believe that they are going to spend their money on an “office,” advertise their services, keep accounts, submit to regular health testing and pay taxes on their income? Dream on.

          Kay 1 is saying "harm reduction" of legalization won't work to help reduce the risk of harm to those who need the help the most. Agree or disagree, but please refrain from the little rhetorical trick of implying she thus doesn't give a damn about them. Because then you're up to the same distasteful trick you played with the Wildrose statement a week ago, suggesting that Wildrose would logically (ahem) be cheering Pickton on for his apparently valuable community service.

          • That must be Barbara Kay 1.5.

    • Surely respectable writers like Colby Cosh wouldn't denounce the position of Barbara Kay (or damn with the faint praise of "I THINK I know that she would oppose what Pickton was up to…") without reading what she has written on the subject.

      • Including the stuff that gets edited out later?

  4. A libertarian argument is troubling when (estimates vary) 90% of sex trade workers have been sexually abused as children. Their identitities have been shaped around abuse, making this a natural way to make a living. Prostitution, mental illness, addictions- we do not protect the children, but we pay as a society for the outcomes, including the problems their own children face.

    Of course prostitution can be compared to other demeaning work- we "sell" our bodies/brains to do things that we detest, and like prostitution, somebody else gets rich. If healthy adults choose prostitution, then it is another argument. But until the dark paths to this world are lit up and acknowledged, we cannot get near such a discussion.

    • The question is whether criminalizing and arresting prostitutes is the way to shed that light. But try applying the taxi-driver heuristic: a lot of people doing that job are there because of hard luck of one kind or another, false promises of gold-paved Canadian streets, or inability to work in a more conventional setting.

    • You are assuming that prostitution is an unnatural way to make a living. Yes, perhaps victims of abuse have had all the mysticism around sex stripped away. It's not their new attitude–that they don't revere sex as something sacred–that is the problem, but the violent way they came about it. We could all use a little less nonsense surrounding sex.

      As I see it, something far more dangerous than a person selling sex because it is meaningless to them, would be the formation of unhealthy *permanent* relationships following a history of abuse.

  5. I would agree with this entirely if there were any way for the prostitute – literally and figuratively – to take off her uniform at the end of her shift. Legally, though, I'm glad that at least some Canadians are starting to make sense.

  6. Decent article, but an easy target.

  7. Nothing comes out of that town but hookers and columnists…

    Colby, didn't see you there. remind me again, what beat does your sister cover?

  8. The jump (continue) Cash the jump.

  9. Here, again, the idea that prostitution should be made safer is just being laughed at. We have a whole universe of occupational health and safety regulations devoted to making extremely dangerous jobs very dangerous, don't we? Are these rules somehow bad or ridiculous?

    I dunno, there's great grounds here for fiscal conservatives. After all, the odds of a police officer being shot are substantially less than them being physically assaulted so when will the people in power note that we're wasting money on protective vests to keep them marginally more safe? Think of the money we could save the public in the next budget if we just gave up buying armour for our soldiers – they volunteered to be shot at ya know. Firemen helmets are excessive too, right? I mean… the fire will burn them before the roof falls on their heads, no?

    • Firemen helmets are excessive too, right? I mean… the fire will burn them before the roof falls on their heads, no?

      I know it's just an analogy, but for the record, the roof falling on their head is actually what's going to knock them unconscious, rendering them unable to escape as the fire burns them.

  10. A journalist—particularly one who's a brilliant, tireless reporter—…
    You're not talking about Daphne Bramham, are you? I see her stuff all the time (I subscribe to the VanSun), and I shake my head in wonder that she is still employed. This kind of non-thinking rant is entirely par for the course for Ms Bramham.

  11. Ideally we should strive to create a society in which we can all make our own choices without forcing others to live with the consequences.

    A prohibition on selling sex flies in the face this. If your concern is the state of women, then we should be doing things to improve the health, safety and opportunities for these women to move on, understanding that we CAN'T MAKE PEOPLE'S CHOICES FOR THEM.

    Instead we still seem to embrace the notion that what we merely don't like in others is justification to ostracize them from society and throw them to the not so tender mercies of organized crime.

    Good public policy must be measured by its effectiveness and ability to actually achieve the goals it is designed to respond to, and a prohibition on selling sex, like so many other forms of prohibition, does more harm than good because it pushes people outside the purview of society.

    When will the insanity end?

  12. Brilliant Column.

    This misandrist proposal to save the women and criminalize the men is being organized by Christian Conservatives like Andrea Mrozek, who wrote about it in the Toronto Sun and it was also proposed on 100 Huntley Street.

    Are Christian Conservatives the NEW misandrist feminists?

  13. Woah, how do you *know* all this? As a sex work organizer and a friend and family member to sex workers, I am stunned with the thoroughness, smarts and good common sense in this piece. In particular in my experience, it is *unheard of* for anyone to see women sex workers as sharing the same source of violence as the checkout cashier and the accountant–boyfriends and husbands and family members–and to not just demonize clients as misogynist brutes. Mary, mother of god, if only those REAL women knew how much more trouble they give sex workers than the average joe who just wants uncomplicated sex on his lunch break. But I digress, along with that, i especially appreciated your your analogy to taxi drivers and pointing out the strange situation where *only* sex workers are seen to be distinctly alienated from their labour and "selling their bodies". oh the tragedy. yo, the tragedy is called capitalism! The only thing I'd point out here to round out your argument is how this erases the actual skills involved in being a safe and successful sex worker.

    I'd caution you on using the term "deformed". What the eff is that? Many clients have all kinds of physical and intellectual disabilities, from Aspergers or Diabetes to mobility limitations but the word "deformed" suggests some kind of monster and is disrespectful.

    Finally, thank you for obviously having known, listened to and respected *actual* sex workers. It shows.

  14. These laws — or at least two of the three, the “bawdy house” and

    “avails” sections of the Criminal Code — have not been enforced in any

    more than a minimal token manner for years (surely the timing of a bawdy

    house bust in Vancouver last week was just a coincidence, and not

    politically motivated, right?). Large cities have dozens of knowingly

    tolerated sex businesses, often effectively endorsed through licensing

    by municipal authorities under the ridiculously transparent veils of

    escort agencies, massage parlours, or similar euphemistic labels. (As

    Dan Gardner mentions on Twitter, he described this situation in detail 8

    years ago.)

    By arguing to keep the status quo with their appeal of the Himel

    decision, the federal and Ontario governments are fighting to preserve a

    dishonest arrangement that protects nothing except their own ability to

    pretend to outlaw sex businesses everyone knows are largely allowed in

    practice. And — not that I’m aware of any such allegations in Canada —

    how would we know if vice cops or by-law enforcers were being paid off

    under the table to turn a blind eye to some of these operations while

    targeting only their competitors? Apparently this was occurring in the

    Aussie state of Queensland, before they allowed legal brothels, like

    most of Australia and New Zealand do now. So preserving the status quo

    can protect one thing — police corruption.

    Even if someone believed decriminalization would do little or nothing to

    help street prostitutes like the women murdered in the Pickton case,

    shouldn’t the lack of honest enforcement of these laws be enough to

    convince us to get rid of them? And shouldn’t the thousands of off-street sex workers in Canada have the same rights and protections as any other profession?

  15. Anonia Zerbisias writes about that: http://thestar.blogs.com/broadsides/2010/09/bawdy

    If you google "barbara kay" and "human wreckage" you will see that she has used the phrase at least twice before, once about poor people and once about sex offenders. Its use says more about her than the people she is writing about.

    • Zerbisias also notes there that Charles McVety urged the Government of Harper to appeal the ruling, whic it is doing.

      Once again a rightwing religious nut is leading Harper by the nose, who then drags his caucus along behind by their noses.. I wonder if McVety also has something against the long-form census…