It is commonly said that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. Some believe that sex is a commodity and there is absolutely nothing wrong with exchanging money for sexual services. On the other hand, there are those that believe that prostitution is a form of male oppression, which has no need to exist in today’s world. The documentary Buying Sex, directed by Kent Nason and Teresa MacInnes, takes a look at both sides of the equation, under the backdrop of the recent court battle, which is trying to decriminalize prostitution in Canada. In the aftermath of 2007 case of serial killer Robert Pickton, who was accused of killing 26 women – many of them prostitutes, a Toronto lawyer named Alan Young sets out to change Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, which he deems as unconstitutional. Young, supported by dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford and former sex-trade worker Valerie Scott, argues that the laws preventing prostitutes from working out of their own homes or “bawdy houses,” put them at greater risk towards predators. However, the case is opposed by a group of women’s rights activists, lead by former prostitute Trisha Bapte, who argues that many prostitutes have been forced into their positions and even if the laws are changed, there will still be prostitutes that get abused by their clients. The debate in Canada is contrasted with cases in New Zealand, where prostitution has been legalized, and Stockholm, Sweden, where it has become outright illegal to buy sexual services.
While the sex industry as a whole is highly controversial, prostitution gets particular flack due to the fact that if often involves men paying women to have sex with them. This is viewed by many feminists to be highly oppressive and abusive to women and some argue that the sex industry equals paid rape. However, there are also sex workers out there, who see nothing wrong with what they are doing. Valerie Scott, who is considered one of the main spokespeople in the fight to legalize prostitution, says that she got into the profession after being quite intrigued by the sultry saloon girls of the old west. Scott does not consider the sex industry to be abusive in her mind and she believes that women should have the choice to sell their bodies. On the other hand, people like Trisha Bapte argues that many prostitutes are abused children, who become abused women, and they aren’t often cognitive of the abuse they are subjected to until long after they leave the profession. The film features interviews with many real individuals, who hire prostitutes, many of whom understandably hide their identities. The clients of prostitutes comes from all walks of life and reasons for hiring sex workers range from unsatisfactory sex lives in relationships to just wanting to hire the professionals. As someone, who is not really a supporter of casual sex in general, I do find the “male sex drive is part of human nature” argument a bit bothersome. While I suppose men of the right to conduct their sex lives any way they please, the fact that many of these individuals resort to prostitutes because of “vanilla” sex with their significant others somewhat disturbs me. There is also the issue of prostitutes who work in brothels, in contrast with those who work on the street. When the court ruling was finally made, it ruled in favour of prostitutes working out of their homes or bawdy houses, but still made street walking illegal. Trisha Bapte argues that it is these street walkers, who are subjugated to most abuse. She also argues that there are strict rules about who get to work in brothels and, unless they are a young blonde or Asian, there will be many prostitutes that still have to work on the streets. Also, as seen in the case study of the legalized prostitution in New Zealand, there are many prostitutes that just prefer working on the streets, instead of brothels. There is also major socioeconomic questions about why an 18 year old girl feels that work in the sex trade is the best, and only, option for her. The debate over the legalization of prostitution is not one that is going to end anytime soon. Even though the courts ultimately ruled in favour of Alan Young’s arguments, they were quickly appealed by the Canadian government and the case is now being brought towards the Supreme Court of Canada. Overall, I thought that Buying Sex was a highly informative documentary, which objectively shows both sides of this debate.8 | LIKED IT