On Saturday Anthony Furey is speaking at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa on the topic “Is Canada ready for new prostitution laws – or none at all?” Below is a version of his opening statement:
When I first became politically aware, I leaned quite left. Many can relate to this, no doubt. You see, I wanted good things for people. Good outcomes and results. Because I cared.
But it didn’t take long for me to figure out that people often disagree on what those good things are. And that there are some people out there who, in spite of this disagreement, still want to force their version of good things on others. Even if the others object.
I then realized that what I wanted for people wasn’t good results after all. But for everyone to have the freedom to pursue whatever their version of good results was. A key distinction often overlooked today.
There seemed to be two perspectives of government: those who viewed it as a mechanism to force people to live the way they thought they should live, and those who thought the point was to maximize liberties.
I realized I believed the latter. And if you believe that we created government to serve us and not the other way around, I hope you agree.
But what about people whose idea of exercising their liberty is something that we personally don’t like? Something that disgusts us. That we’d be horrified to learn if our friends were doing it. Does that still fall under the case for liberty?
Well there’s a simple litmus test that will solve this: If the action is done voluntarily and it’s not otherwise infringing on someone else’s liberty, then it must be allowed. Anything else is the state micromanaging personal choice.
This is where prostitution comes in. Not only does this argument lead one to oppose any form of law that limits the right of consenting individuals to otherwise lawfully engage in sex commerce, but implies that this is the natural position for advocates of small government to hold.
Last December the Supreme Court struck down Canada’s prostitution laws on the grounds that they endangered prostitutes. The feds have time to think this over and come up with revised laws.
Joy Smith, Member of Parliament for Kildonan - St. Paul, argues in her paper "The Tipping Point" that the correct response to the ruling is to move towards what’s called the Nordic model. Many people share this view. Based on Swedish legislation from 1999, this would shift all criminality from the seller to the buyer. It targets johns instead of prostitutes.
But if sex commerce is consensual, it makes no sense to target one side of the transaction over another. And besides, what business is it of the government?
Ah, my opponents will cry, but what about human trafficking? What about child prostitution? What about sex slavery? What about abuse?
Well, what about them? They’re illegal and will remain so. There is no consent going on in the above and they are all liberty violations.
It’s bad logic to argue that because prostitution could lead to such problems, it should be outlawed entirely. If the above infringements are still going on, then it’s clearly enforcement that needs to be looked at, not the law itself.
Drunk driving is not an argument to ban either driving or drinking. Public shootings are no argument to ban gun ownership. It simply casts the net too wide. It’s lazy from both the legislative and policing perspectives.
There are some however who would argue there’s something wrong with prostitution in and of itself. To return to Smith, she writes that any new laws “should recognize that the violence and exploitation inherent in prostitution directly violates an individual’s right to life, liberty and security of person.”
So there’s violence inherent in prostitution? Even when there actually is no violence? Even when there’s consent?
Smith adds that “those who claim to be in prostitution by choice are often using prostitution as a means of survival or to maintain an addiction.”
This is clearly the case for some. But I don’t want to live in a society where the government says even though someone claims to do something by choice, well, they’re really not. That’s nanny statism.
So the main challenge in legalizing prostitution is to not mistake it as a signal that we’ve dropped the ball on going after human trafficking, etc. If anything, after separating otherwise law-abiding prostitution from the real crimes, we should double down on stamping out these abuses.
In his book Paying For It , graphic novelist Chester Brown recollects his experiences of, well, paying for it. In it he grapples with all of the above quandaries and many more (it’s a fairly pornographic book, consider yourself warned). I don’t see why the likes of Brown – polite, respectful, paying his tab in full – should be treated like criminals just because another guy on the other side of town is engaging in human trafficking.
By all means, use moral arguments against prostitution to dissuade people from joining the profession. But it's still their choice. To let moralizing turn into legislating just infringes on liberty."