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.