MacKay the Moralist: Legislating morality is a tricky business.

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

July 9, 2014


As long as there are men and women – and money – prostitution, the world’s oldest profession, will be with us.  Prostitution is legal in Canada, though some supporting activities aren’t, such as soliciting, operating a bawdy house and living off the avails.  The Supreme Court last year determined these pesky laws could endanger prostitutes in the conduct of their business, violating their Charter rights, and so gave the government a year to fix them or they’d be history.

Canada’s justice minister, Peter MacKay, could have pulled a Kim Campbell and simply allowed the prostitution laws to fade away – as Campbell had done with abortion, thereby removing it from the criminal code.  These prostitution laws are archaic, originating before confederation and based on the dated puritan ethics of the time.  Aside from any question of morality there is no need to regulate the money for sex business at the federal level.  Municipalities are best equipped to deal with zoning, traffic issues, licensing, and public health as they do for other businesses.

Peter MacKay

Justice Minister Peter McKay

Nevertheless, Canada’s Justice Minister has decided what we need is more, not fewer laws.  He is proposing to make buying sex illegal, ban advertising, and restrict selling sex to places free of minors.  The only way sex workers will be able to conduct their trade is in back alleys, in customers’ cars and/or working through pimps.  Instead of meeting his stated goal of eliminating prostitution this will just make it more victimizing, dangerous and unhealthy.

Prostitution is loosely defined as trading sex for some kind of payment.  But defining payment and sex are problematic for an activity which comes in a variety of flavours, including males, females and everything in between.  Coitus or intercourse may be what most people think of, but sex can be anything from oral to anal, sexual touching, just touching or even just talking.

Some ‘pros’ may see themselves as semi-professional sex therapists helping their clients with sexual problems, though don’t expect OHIP to pay for that service.  And indeed, professional sex therapists do employ surrogates to provide sexual services.

And it really is about the money – money to live on.  And if MacKay and Harper really wanted to do something significant to reduce the size of the industry they might start by ensuing all Canadians receive an adequate annual income.  That way they wouldn’t have to resort to renting their bodies.  Lifting the poverty level would remove the very reason that so many people turn tricks in the first place.

Legislating morality is a tricky business, especially in a multicultural Canada endowed with various religions, ethnic origins and cultural values.  And societal values are constantly evolving as we shed the taboos of the past in favour of a broader enlightenment in this 21st century.  Today there are a host of match-making, dating and even spouse-cheating services on-line and yet nobody talks about outlawing these businesses, which are really only a stone’s throw from what we call pimping.

Peter Mackay  mouth open - shoutingMr. MacKay calls his new legal framework made-in-Canada, but it really just mimics the so-called Nordic model which most researchers on the topic admit is a hopeless failure at either eliminating prostitution or reducing potential violence.

Other jurisdictions, such as New Zealand, have effectively legalized (decriminalized) most aspects of prostitution making it safer for all parties involved in the business.  And despite such liberalization of the oldest profession, evidence is that prostitution levels have not increased, as many feared they would.  And they would know because sex workers there pay taxes on their earnings, unlike here.

If MacKay was really serious about what he calls victimization in the industry, the New Zealand model is what he should be looking at rather than that mixed bag he is bringing to the table – a mixed bag that the Supreme Court will once again rule against.  And the moralistic Harper government will have to go back to the drawing boards to re frame the oldest profession.

And speaking of professions isn’t it time MacKay changed his or, rather, that his boss moved him into some other line of work.  Almost every time this justice minister goes before the Supreme Court he loses his case – how on earth has he continued to hold his ministry with a record of incompetence like that.

If I were a PM that prides himself on being in control, I’d certainly want to change MacKay’s ministry if not his vocation.  Come to think of it, he wasn’t much better as Minister of Defence either.  Where is Kim Campbell when we need her?


Ray Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington where he ran against Cam Jackson in 1995, the year Mike Harris and the Common Sense Revolution swept the province. He developed the current policy process for the Ontario Liberal Party.


Background links:

Prostitution       Sex Workers    The Wrong Way   Flawed Information      Street Walkers

 International      Statistics     New Zealand Model     New Zealand    Harper’s Pitch    

 An Other View

 Sex Surrogates –  Nordic Model  

What Sex Workers Say

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