Dear Mr. McConaghy:
Thank you again for your e-mail to me. It is always helpful when Christians have the opportunity to discuss their differences. It allows us to re-examine our rationales for particular conclusions, and acknowledges the paradox of diversity and unity which we find in Christ.
I see that you copied the Primate and the Anglican Church of Canada’s Special Advisor on Government Relations on your letter. I should say again that the people who signed the statement do not speak for anyone other than themselves – not our particular parishes, our dioceses, our places of employment or study, the national church, or any other body. I did discuss this with my own bishop, the Right Reverend Logan McMenamie, Bishop of British Columbia (i.e. Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands), and while he encouraged me to go forward he himself is not a signatory. I have copied him, as well as four of the signatories, two of whom, along with me, were interviewed by Macleans. For your information I have attached the statement with an updated list of signers. Because of interest in this issue, I would like to be able to post your e-mail and this response to my weblog; please let me know if this is not acceptable.
Thank you for acknowledging my sincere interest in assisting sex workers. I applaud your work in Cambodia with Ratanak International, especially with those who are trafficked and those in child sex slavery. I certainly do not dismiss you out of hand, which I trust is evident in my rather lengthy response.
As I have mentioned to a number of people, I have been doing a “crash course” on the sex trade in Canada, and on legislation in various countries around the world. As you suggested, I have taken “another long hard look at this issue.” However, the deeper I get into it, the more I am convinced that Bill C-36 is not the right response to issues of violence and exploitation in sex work.
In brief, I have reached two conclusions. First, violence against men and women in the sex trade is already illegal, as it is against any person in Canada. Likewise, the purchasing of sex from a minor is automatically an offense under the Criminal Code, because of the lack of consent. Finally, trafficking for any purpose is illegal as well. Thus, it seems to me that issues of violence and exploitation is already covered by the existing legislation. The issue is the implementation of the current law, and efforts by governments on prevention of violence and trafficking. The proposed legislation does not seem to add anything to the implementation of these laws. Indeed, the new provisions may actually divert attention from issues of trafficking, violence, and the abuse of minors. The proposed legislation has the potential to exacerbate existing antagonism between police and sex workers, and create it where relations are currently good.
As was evident from the “Forsaken” report, it was antagonism like this that allowed Robert Pickton to get away with his predatory behaviour for so long. I think that it is important to listen to the relatives of those victims. Maggie de Vries, whose sister, Sarah de Vries, was one of serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims, said she opposed the bill, asked to appear before the Justice Committee, but was not invited. She has stated: “As I got a sense of how things unfolded I began to suspect that the powers that be may not have wanted a family member of a murdered sex worker speaking out against the bill.” Her written brief to the Committee on Justice and Human Rights read: “It is clear to me that criminalizing sex work in any way brings danger to sex workers and diminishes all of us by reinforcing our prejudices. I was glad when the laws were struck down last year, and I am appalled by the laws that are now lined up to take their place. These new laws will make life harder for sex workers, bring more violence their way, and make it more difficult for those who would like to change their lives to do so.” http://www.cambridgetimes.ca/news-story/4633506-prostitution-bill-hearings-had-strong-evangelical-voice/ For the life of me, I can see no way in which Bill C-36 would have done anything to prevent the murders of Robert Pickton.
The second conclusion I have reached is that those of us who do have an interest in assisting sex workers need to do so from a non-judgmental basis. This is extremely difficult, because in fact we make judgements all the time, but it is especially necessary because of the historic stigmatization of sex work. However, as Christians, it is what we are called to do: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.1-3); “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. . . . Neither do I condemn you.” (John 8.7,11). I do not think that Jesus calls us to never make judgements, or to refrain from condemning sin, but that the arrogance of righteousness frequently gets in the way of establishing anything like a meaningful relationship with people. The sex trade is deeply suspicious of us Christians because a) some prominent Christians condemn the sex trade but then secretly purchase their services (Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and so on – just google it), and so we are all labelled hypocrites; and b) if we start from the assumption that all sex work is exploitative in a negative sense, that all sex workers are victims, and that prostitution is inherently wrong, then we have pigeon-holed sex workers and fail to attend to what many of them are really saying.
The model for this non-judgmental approach is, of course, Jesus Christ. In Luke 7.36-50 (text below my signature) we find the story of a female sinner – which I read as a euphemism for a prostitute – who comes to Jesus in the house of Simon the Pharisee. I find it striking that at no point does Jesus condemn the sinner, and no confession of sin is made by the woman. Indeed, she seems to say nothing, but simply kisses his feet, weeping, and anoints them. The Pharisees are outraged by this peculiar behaviour, but Jesus interprets it as hospitality, and challenges Simon on his lack of it. Jesus forgives the woman without extracting a promise that she not sin again. This is a striking passage of God’s unconditional love and grace.
We hear no more of the woman, although tradition conflated her with Mary Magdalene – a nice, pious tradition, but not actually in the gospel. It is as though readers could not handle the radical nature of God’s forgiveness, and had to have proof of the woman’s transformation – Mary Magdalene as the reformed prostitute. Can we read these biblical passages without reading our expectations into them? Can we as Christians actually engage with sex workers without at first condemning them, or characterizing them as victims even when they don’t see themselves as such? I believe that a non-judgmental approach will reap greater benefit to these people and lead more to leave sex work than external classification, condemnation, and punitive legislation.
Can we have an agent-centred approach? The recent book Human Trafficking Reconsidered (Kimberly Kay Hoang and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, editors; New York: IDEBATE Press, 2014) describes recurrent problems amongst those who are most zealous to deal with trafficking of sex workers. Describing research into trafficking into the United States (New York City and Washington DC) Dr. Alicia Peters notes that, “All the survivors I spoke with attributed their suffering to fear, isolation, deceit, and threats to their families as opposed to sexual victimization emphasized by antiprostitution advocates, the media, the general public, and even many law ebforcement officials” (p.35). In our efforts to help these people are we listening to them?
I do not deny that life is grim for many sex workers. The danger is that one can extrapolate from a minority and project a grim reality that is in fact false. The truth is that it is very hard to get good, unbiased data. I have no doubt that in your twenty-two years as an RCMP officer that you encountered much that was depraved, indifferent, violent, and horrific. But I am not sure that one can legitimately extrapolate from that personal experience, where police are left with cleaning up the social ills of society, to society in general. I spent eight and a half years as the Executive Officer of the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia. As such, I got to deal with the “dark side” of the church among both clergy and laity – sexual misconduct, sexual assault on minors from decades past, physical violence, bullies, financial misconduct, breach of trust, and general incompetence. If I were to generalize from those experiences I would have no hope for the church. The good news is that I already knew from parish experience and some of the more positive activities as Executive Officer that those horrific crises were not indicative of the whole organization, but only a small part.
Better research is needed into the sex trade in Canada. Too much information in the public discourse comes from secondary sources that quote other secondary sources, and so on until one finds that the information is improperly researched. Good research has been done by Prof. Cecelia Benoit and her colleagues here at the University of Victoria. In what is probably the most comprehensive study ever carried out in Canada they found that the vast majority – 80% – of sex workers feel that they are “empowered to set the terms and conditions of the service. Further, it shows that for buyers and sellers, advertising—internet advertising in particular—acts as a safety mechanism.” The average age of entry into sex work is not, as many sources authoritatively state, age 13, but 23 (I can link you to the academic articles, if you wish). I have also had the opportunity to speak with staff and clients at PEERS Victoria, and their experiences echo this research. So I have taken a hard look at the situation in Canada, and what I find is that the approach stated in both the preamble and in the body of C-36 is based on inaccurate data and assumptions.
I have watched the video you suggested. I wish I could have watched more of the testimony from other days. I was particularly taken with the testimony of Emily Symons representing Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate & Resist and Robyn Maynard of the group Stella, l’amie de Maimie. There was a credibility to their words which could not be denied. Likewise, one’s heart breaks at the testimony of Casandra Diamond from BridgeNorth, but my question would be whether she is extrapolating from her own horrific experience to an unwarranted generalization about all sex work. I found José Mendes Bota’s testimony problematic. He admitted he was unaware of the Bedford decision, and so he could not comment on how the proposed legislation might address the concerns of the Supreme Court. He acknowledged the need for better data. He has adopted the position of the Nordic model and bases his opinions, as he stated, from conversations with politicians, law enforcement, and academics. He seems to be unaware of the work of Jay Levy and Pye Jakobsson which finds that “there are no reliable data demonstrating any overall decline in people selling sex” but rather that “the law has resulted in increased dangers in some forms of sex work.” Eilis Ward and Gillian Wylie, working in Ireland, have found that the Swedish model of “neo-abolitionism, as a discourse of certainty, was intolerant of contingency, complexity and ambiguity, all of which in our view more accurately reflected the reality of the sex trade.”
I would say that I have thus also taken a hard look at the situation in the nations that have adopted the Nordic model, and I find the results problematic. At best the data is equivocal, because research is policy driven and not free from the dominant abolitionist discourse.
As a Christian there are many things which I do not approve of. I do not approve of adultery, casinos, infidelity, spendthrifts, or intoxication. That said, I do not think we should have laws against such things, but rather programs and economic policies that support families and those afflicted with addictions. If we outlaw such things we merely drive these activities underground. The United States tried Prohibition and as we know all too well it resulted in a decline for the respect of the law and the rise of organized crime. As Jesus pointed out in Matthew 12.43-45, sometimes when you drive out a demon it returns with seven more, and “and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” Punitive criminalization, to my mind, does exactly this.
Good people can hold immoral positions. I am currently working on a PhD through the Heythrop College at the University of London. The dissertation focuses on the legacy of Canadian churches’ participation in the Indian Residential Schools. What kind of theology of mission allows good Christian missionaries to be involved in what was effectively a genocide? My Christian forebears sought to assimilate the indigenous peoples of Canada so that there would never be an “Indian problem” again. Some of these schools had unacceptably high mortality rates of 50% or more. The RCMP as agents of the state apprehended children from their parents and transported them hundreds of miles from their parents. Sexual predators were allowed easy access to vulnerable children. Experiments in malnutrition were performed secretly in some schools. Children were beaten for speaking their native language, and were told that their families were savages, demon possessed, and ignorant. Their understanding of God was derogated. Children at a certain age were forced to work for their own upkeep. People who spoke out against these practices were dismissed from positions and silenced. Our Christian brothers and sisters sought to remake these generations of children in their own image, and did not attend to the real needs of this vulnerable population. They thought they were doing God’s work, but it was anything but.
I am concerned that many good people, including Christians, are doing a similar thing in supporting this legislation. They are not radical, irrational, superficial in knowledge, nor uncompassionate – they are just wrong. And sometimes the certainty of a particular passionate discourse overrides the complexity of a particular situation. I believe that this legislation is immoral because “it increases the potential for dangerous situations.”
The legislation will undoubtedly pass. I hope I am proved wrong about its detrimental effects. I fear I am all too right. May God be with us.
The Reverend Bruce Bryant-Scott BA MDiv ThM
St. Matthias Anglican Church
600 Richmond Avenue
Victoria, BC V8S 3Y7
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’