Bill C-36: When conservatives and feminists collide

’We seem to have exchanged demonizing women for infantilizing them,’ writes Colby Cosh
DA8M5B Approach with a client,Prostitution,Milan province,Italy

Have you read Bill C-36, the Conservative government’s attempt to put the concept of prostitution back into the Criminal Code after the Supreme Court more or less tossed it out in December? A lot of commentators have not been able to help observing that there is something faintly ironic, perhaps almost jokey, about C-36.

For decades, we had these leftover Victorian laws against “living off the avails” and keeping a “bawdy house” without any actual ban on prostitution itself. Victorians were fairly respectful of the limits to state activity, and knew that prostitution is one of the oldest, most universal human institutions. They did not presume to be able to eliminate it. They merely sought to drive it out of sight, thrust it beyond the consciousness of respectable society. They treated it as a threat to social foundations: the sacrament of marriage, modesty, patriarchal primacy, the value of virginity, et cetera.

This law worked reasonably well on its own terms—on the premise, that is, that harm inflicted on socially dangerous “fallen” women was not of much concern, but the public visibility of the sex trade would send the entire Anglo-Saxon Protestant way of life straight to hell. We have all moved on from that kind of thinking: We no longer consider, in general, that it is worth it for some people to die or suffer in order to preserve the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie. That is, in effect, why the Supreme Court ditched the existing laws against what one might call para-prostitution. Those laws reflected a different social order, a consciously coercive, unequal class structure supported by the power of the state.

There are those—fringe leftists, mostly—who believe that our Conservative government is a genuinely small-c conservative conspiracy that means to wind the clock back to Victorian days. There is a kernel of truth in this: Canada is a Victorian creation, and the Conservatives like to exploit the charm that still attaches to royal warrants and historic 19th-century battles. But, in general, you have to be pretty stupid to believe that a government that includes Michelle Rempel and John Baird and Tim Uppal would like to go back to the Good Old Days.

And that brings us to the preamble of C-36, which lays out the guiding philosophy of the law. It is not a 19th-century philosophy: It is straight out of the 20th. The Parliament of Canada, we are told, “has grave concerns about the exploitation that is inherent in prostitution.” It also “recognizes the social harm caused by the objectification of the human body.” It is crucial not only to discourage prostitution itself, but to prevent its “commercialization and institutionalization.”

This is the verbal palette of second-wave feminism, and hardly that of  William Ewart Gladstone. A Conservative government has problems with “commercialization and institutionalization” now? Stick it to the man!

“Objectification of the human body” is an old favourite for those of us who entered university in the 1990s: “Objectification”, thought through all the way, is a frightful-sounding word for “buying a service from somebody.” Same thing with “exploitation.” Exploitation is inherent in buying sex, but equally so in buying a can of peas at the grocery store. You probably did not know that the Conservative prostitution bill contained a prolonged grumble about how only evil, nasty types of human relationships involve the exchange of money, with the implied alternative presumably being something out of John Lennon’s Imagine. But it does.

It has often been observed that conservatives and feminists have a way of making ad hoc alliances whose effects are seemingly anachronistic. C-36 may very well end up driving prostitution underground, and harming prostitutes, as effectively as the law it replaced. But the Victorians controlled female sexuality, at least partly, because they feared its dangers. This is something people have trouble understanding, for example, about the classical view of illegal abortion: No one was as primarily concerned with it as homicide, but as a risky way for errant women and sleazy men to conceal unlawful fun.

We seem to have exchanged demonizing women for infantilizing them. (Perhaps someday we’ll discover some kind of crazy third alternative!) The new law concentrates on the demand for prostitution, rather than the supply, because “women are vulnerable” and the sex trade is never a choice—except possibly for some male prostitutes, although Conservative statements on the law always speak only of women and children. Somehow, this is exactly the opposite approach from the one our law takes to the war on drugs: In that case, the demand is considered relatively harmless and natural, while the suppliers can never be persecuted harshly enough. Why do you suppose this distinction is never noticed, much less accounted for?