Should the prostitution law debate hear from johns?

Ottawa's new law on prostitution aims its legislative guns squarely at the consumers of sex services — "the perverts," as Justice Minister Peter MacKay has called them.

Clients will bear brunt of consequences in prostitution bill, as Ottawa moves to protect sex workers

Justice Minister Peter MacKay has introduced legislation to criminalize the purchase of sexual services. At his news conference on June 4, he referred to sex buyers as 'perverts.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Sex, with a few notable exceptions, is a physical act undertaken by two people. When money changes hands, it's called prostitution. And that's where a whole lot of trouble exists.

Bill C-36 is the latest instalment in the world's oldest controversy.

On Monday, NDP justice critic Francoise Boivin told reporters the justice committee will meet the week of July 7 to hear testimony on the bill.

Ottawa's new law on prostitution aims its legislative guns squarely at the consumers of sex services — "the perverts," as Justice Minister Peter MacKay has called them.

Chris Atchison, a sociologist at the University of Victoria, prefers the term "johns." He's studied sex buyers for 18 years and has published two of the world's largest studies on the subject.

Atchison says that what's missing from the new law is a basic understanding of how many johns there are in Canada and what motivates them to buy sex.

He says the best comparative numbers are from Britain, New Zealand and Australia, where four to seven per cent of the male population have purchased sex.

"[But for Canada] there is no indication at the broader level. Which then begs the question, how is it that we can have this legislation that has been proposed to address a problem when nobody knows the magnitude of the so-called problem."

Reasons for buying sex vary

In his research, Atchison has spoken to "literally thousands" of men who bought sex. The act itself is the main reason they visit prostitutes, but it is not the only one. Johns have told him they want companionship, conversation, physical touch. Some are handicapped or suffering from degenerative diseases that leave them paralyzed.
Protesters rally in front the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa in June, 2013. The court struck down Canada's prostitution law and gave Ottawa one year to rewrite it. (The Canadian Press)

Perhaps most surprising, there are johns who have long-term connections with a sex provider that in some cases last for years. They are what he calls "pseudo-monogamous relationships."

In a recent interview on CBC Radio's The 180, James Rodney admitted to having been a regular user of sexual services in the 1990s. He was working at a fly-in job in a remote area of Canada and didn't feel having a one-night stand was fair to the woman.

"[Prostitution] was an option for human contact, a sexual release. The comfort and pampering that a sex service provider can give," Rodney explained to 180 host Jim Brown. 

"People see sexual service providers for the same range of reasons that people get involved in heterosexual, non-commercial relationships. Seeing this as some sort of deviant or very different [relationship] from how people engage in their day-to-day heterosexual relations that are non-commercial is a mistake," says Atchison.

Buying sex is about power, Christian critic says

If anyone is mistaken, argues Julia Beazley, it's Atchison.

"[Prostitutes'] lived experiences tell us that most men buy sex because it is about power. And sometimes that's violent power, sometimes that's aggressive power, but sometimes it's just the sense that for this time period, I have the social, economic and sexual power over this other person," says the policy analyst from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, an umbrella group of evangelical Christians in Canada.

The Christian group considers itself abolitionist when it comes to prostitution.

"I don't think that the fact that prostitution has been around for a very, very, very long time means that we have to accept it as an inevitable. I don't think that buying sex is an intractable part of male nature. I think that we can change these things," says Beazley.

If an evangelical group seems predictable in its stance on prostitution, consider that the view is shared by the Native Women's Association of Canada, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies and the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, among others.

"The substance of our positioning, of our argumentation on this issue — what we want to see happen and why — is very, very much in line with feminist organizations," says Beazley.

Cherry Smiley, middle right, of Vancouver and Sue Martin of Ottawa join others as they rally in front the Supreme Court of Canada. Abolitionists don't believe they have to accept prostitution as inevitable in society. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

She believes this bill turns the approach to ridding society of prostitution on its head. It puts the blame on the john and treats prostitutes as victims of exploitation.

"We are concerned with the protection and the care of the vulnerable," says Beazley. She lauds the government for this legislation and adds, "They've courageously challenged the belief that men are entitled to paid sexual access to women's bodies."

But for others, the idea of ridding the world of prostitution is naive in the extreme. Not only will sex sellers remain a fixture in society, but this law will be challenged on new grounds.

'State-sponsored entrapment'

John Lowman, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University who has studied prostitution and the law since 1977, thinks Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — equality rights — will get a workout this time around. 

He explains that the proposed law would allow a woman to sell sex without fear of prosecution. 

"Then the full weight of the law can be brought against the man who buys those sexual services. It is institutionalized, state-sponsored entrapment," he says.

On top of that, argues Lowman, this approach will just put prostitutes at as much risk of violence as they were under the old regime — the exact opposite of what this law is supposed to do.

"I think that [abolitionists] are quite prepared to sacrifice sex sellers in the name of their particular ideology, which is about creating what they think is an equal society by abolishing prostitution," says Lowman.

He says this law will recreate the Vancouver enforcement experiment in the 1990s, when the police agreed to only go after johns and pimps if prostitutes restricted their activities to the industrial areas of the Downtown Eastside.

"That area became the killing fields of Vancouver. Where Mr. [Robert] Pickton picked up most of the 49 victims that we think he is responsible for murdering," says Lowman.