Pierre Trudeau famously said, “Government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.”
Since then, Canada has resisted, in large part, the various pushes to legislate sexual morality. We have been at the forefront of recognizing the rights of gay people to marry, we have been relatively restrained in making sexual behavior subject to legislation, and the sexual conduct of politicians and celebrities has largely been ignored by the media.
The result? Has Canada become a cesspool of sexual deviance? Are politicians, free from media oversight, hosting orgies on Parliament Hill? Is main street Canada lined with pimps and hookers living off the avails of our liberal prostitution laws?
Of course not. We have divorce rates much lower than the US- about half – and slightly lower than other developed countries such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Use of pornography, as measured by spending on porn is 33% lower in Canada then the United States, with its stricter sex laws. Interestingly the areas of the United States with the highest porn usage rates are the states that moralize and stigmatize sexuality most negatively. Our rates of violent sexual crimes, as measured by incidence of rape, is amongst the lowest in the developed world – only Japan is lower.
So Canadian, despite their relatively liberal views toward sex, are amongst the most sexually well adjusted, if you can consider relatively well adjusted to be indicated by: low divorce rates, low sexual violence rates and lowish rates of porn consumption. Not bad.
Another upside, and this is considerable, we are one of the most tolerant and accepting peoples on the planet. In practice and perception, we are among the most tolerant countries in the world, respecting different cultural, religious and sexual practices with a general live-and-let-live approach.
The Supreme Court of Canada will soon be considering a ruling that, if upheld, will further relax prostitution and sexual solicitation rules in Canada. While numerous prostitution laws are at play in this case, perhaps the most important is a prostitute’s right to hire personnel to protect her while practicing her trade. Currently, while prostitution is legal in Canada, many of the activities that enable it are not, such as living off the avails of prostitution, soliciting and operating a bawdy house. If the Supreme Court of Canada upholds the ruling of the Ontario Court of Appeal in Bedford v Canada, the crime of living off the avails of prostitution will be significantly narrowed to incidents where there is exploitation. So, pimping would still be illegal, but a prostitute would now be able to hire a driver of a bodyguard.
Those opposed to the relaxation of prostitution laws, including the federal government, have argued that the current laws restricting “living off the avails” of prostitution are designed to protect women and prevent predatory pimps from forcing women into prostitution.
This is thinly veiled, weakly argued, moralization.
Weakly Argued: There is near consensus that the best way to protect women who are, or may be, engaged in prostitution is to bring it out of the shadows – legitimize it and regulate it. Many countries – Germany, the Netherlands – have done this and their prostitutes are safer as a result. The issues at play in the Bedford case are no-brainers – allowing people engaged in prostitution to hire staff that can drive them to appointments and watch out for their safety makes prostitutes safer in what is still a shadowed operation.
Thinly Veiled: Those opposed to relaxed prostitution laws are opposed, on moral grounds, to sex for pay. They oppose their right to engage in it and the rights of others to do so. This is beneath us, as Canadian. We can choose to not engage in sex for pay – personally I choose not to engage – but I, and my Government, should not be able to tell others they cannot.
Canada’ Charter of Rights and Freedoms promises Peace, Order and Good Government. We have thrived when we have avoided moralizing and focussed on creating an orderly, respectful, tolerant society. We would do well to extend this model to prostitution.