Men’s Rights Activists and Misdirected Hatred

by Carly Rhianna Smith

Carly Rhianna Smith is a journalism student at Langara College currently completing her practicum at The Tyee in Vancouver. 

I became aware of the men’s rights movement in September of 2012, when a friend showed me an upcoming debate called “Has Feminism Gone Too Far?”

Vancouver slam poet Ruth Mason-Paull organized the debate. Feminist speakers as well as men’s rights activist (MRA) speakers were scheduled, and a public event on Facebook was created. Interestingly, the debate was to be held on Commercial Drive at Café Deux Soleil, a neighbourhood eatery haunted by many feminists, as well as others of the political left.

The Facebook event exploded with venomous discourse between the two camps, and the event was cancelled. According to an article on feminist website dated September 10, “Mason-Paull canceled the debate … after receiving what she said was an overwhelming barrage of comments and threats.” On Mason-Paull’s Facebook page, she said “I come from a middle class belief that people can discuss things and work it out through logic and reasoning. I understand that this is at best delusional when applied to certain members of our society.”

Around the same time, in the same neighbourhood, posters from the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) Vancouver group began appearing, and were soon torn down. The posters said things like “Rape Culture. Men Can Stop Rape. All Men Are Rapists. Had Enough of This Shit Yet?”


Journalist Derek Bedry, who soon came under fire from MRAs, reported on this in a story on Open File. They accused him of “creating the news” by tearing down the posters himself. They posted pictures of a man (who didn’t look much like him) and publicly vilified him in comments on the article. Comments were patronizing, saying things like “So how did you become a reporter again Derek? Do you receive a pat on the back from some ladies at work for this? Or do they throw some more bones at you?” All this was too juicy and I did some further research into the MRM.

The most active website I came across was They have over 1,200 featured articles separated into categories like “misandry,” “sexual politics,” and “feminism.” They also put out radio shows on a multitude of topics pertaining to the MRM.

But what, exactly, do they stand for? And what do they hope to accomplish?


At best, the MRAs look to correct what they see as a series of social injustices directed towards men in a society that caters to female dominance. At worst, they are misguided, angry people with a chip on their shoulder using feminism as a scapegoat for the problems they face in their lives.

“You have a group in a privileged position in society and they’re claiming to be the victim; it’s either a strategic maneuver or else it’s just a misguided perspective,” says Nicole Deagan, a member of The F Word feminist media collective. Deagan encountered a lot of resistance from MRAs when she worked as a legal advocate for women who were going through the court system in the 1990s. “Either it’s people who have power and are uncomfortable with the idea of losing their power or they’re uncomfortable with somebody who’s typically not had power trying to get some. Or else it’s individuals, especially in the men’s rights movement, who are suffering injustices as individuals and they interpret it as a systemic issue,” she says.

The Vancouver Men’s Rights Activism website states in its FAQ: “The MRM is a true civil rights movement, which entertains no goals of removal of the legal rights of others. Both men and women are members of the men’s movement, which recognizes and works to address the real struggles men now face.” To them, this is in contrast to feminism, which “is now elitist, and prejudiced against men” because “many mainstream feminist organizations define masculinity in their public literature as hostile, violent and oppressive.”

The main antagonist of the MRM is feminism. “I’m of the firm belief that, while no society is perfect, we have pursued, and I think achieved, as much sexual parity as could possibly be hoped for in western culture,” says Paul Elam, creator of A Voice For Men. “If there is systemic discrimination against women, I would certainly stand up and speak against it if anyone could show me where it was. However, what I see in terms of systemic discrimination anymore works against men.”


MRAs are fighting against misandry, the fear or hatred of men and boys. A lot of MRM literature uses examples of men being irrationally feared as sexual aggressors, female-on-male violence not being taken seriously, and the court system’s favoritism of women to illustrate their point. The problem with their approach is that they frequently cite anecdotal evidence to back up their claims, yet provide either no or blatantly false empirical evidence or statistics to back them up.

Many MRAs, such as Vancouver resident Chris Marshall, seem to have become involved in the movement due to a personal hardship. Marshall runs the website A Father’s Story, which documents his custody battle with his wife, who lives in Alberta with their 11-year-old son. The website, to say the least, does not seem to be working in his favour. He has continued posting despite being ordered by a judge to take the site down, saying in a post, “It is still up because it is the only tool I have to get people to understand the 10-year nightmare that I have been through in the Alberta courts.” He posted his entire psychological assessment, in which Dr. J. Thomas Dalby states: “Mr. Marshall has shown, by his past actions, a sense of entitlement that he feels he has the natural right to construct access to his child in the way he sees fit in spite of legal restrictions. He has seen the consequences of this casual disregard of legal boundaries and his conduct can only be described as self-defeating.”

In an interesting turn of events, Marshall was to co-host a new debate after the first one at Café Deux Soleil was cancelled. John H., MRA blogger at A Voice For Men named only as “John The Other,” would also host. I intended to attend the debate and interview some of the MRAs in person. It was going to be held at the car dealership in East Vancouver, CC Motors, of which Marshall was the manager. I showed up not realizing this, and walked around in confusion, looking for the master debaters. I could see signage out in front of the dealership being taken down but not much other activity. I asked someone and they told me, “The guy who was supposed to run it never showed up.”

I found on the Facebook event page that police had escorted Marshall off the premises and that his position at the dealership had been terminated due to an entirely separate issue. I got his contact information from his website, and he seemed eager, if not overly so, to share his story with me. He expressed worry in our conversation that I was going to “use him” to get to other MRAs and defame their movement. After some reassurance, we arranged an interview time.

I showed up at the coffee shop we’d arranged to meet at 10 minutes early. I waited for him for over 45 minutes and placed several calls to him that remained unanswered and unreturned. He later replied to one of the emails I sent him, but never got back to me about re-scheduling an interview. This was perturbing; isn’t their goal to have their voices and points of view heard by the public? The opportunity was there and gone.

I soon found that MRAs are an elusive bunch outside of the realms of the internet. I managed to get ahold of Paul Elam after several emails over the course of two weeks or so. He admitted to me that the only reason he ever called me back was because I was “so persistent.” I also attempted to contact John The Other through the website, through Paul Elam, and through Facebook, to no answer.

This seems to be an MRA tactic – they control what information they’re putting out and the slant with which it’s communicated. If they don’t cooperate with media, then there is less of a chance of media scrutiny. In many articles, media has been unkind to MRAs, but this has been as much their own undoing as anything else.

Firstly, to get to the heart of the matter, a majority of claims made by MRAs are false. In a video made by Men’s Rights Edmonton, they say, “Women and men initiate domestic violence at similar rates. Over 250 scholarly studies demonstrate that women are as physically aggressive or more aggressive than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners.” This assertion is widely purported in the MRA community. Notice that the “scholarly studies” are not named, nor are they cited anywhere. Another poster put up on Commercial Drive in September said, “Stop Violence Against Women. But not against men. Because men do not matter, and despite being more often the victims of violence, male victims are no good for fund raising, so screw them.” However, according to Statistics Canada, “In 2010, 7 in 10 (70%) victims of police-reported family violence were girls or women. Looking at rates, the risk of becoming a victim of police-reported family violence was more than twice as high for girls and women as it was for boys and men … The main factor behind females’ increased risk of family violence is related to their higher representation as victims of spousal violence. Women aged 15 years and older accounted for 81% of all spousal violence victims.” In addition, the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project says in its Clemency Manual, “Currently, there are approximately 2,000 battered women in America who are serving prison time for defending their lives against their batterers. As many as 90% of the women in prison today for killing men had been battered by those men.”

MRAs make claims that sound true or based in fact, when in actuality, they’re based on assumption, anecdotal evidence, or a complete misunderstanding of the issue. “Domestic violence against women is much more likely than domestic violence against men to be life-threatening,” says Jarrah Hodge, who runs the blog Gender Focus. “If MRAs want to address violence against men they should also look at male violence against men and address the stereotypes and pressures that unfortunately tells many men that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict and necessary to prove masculinity.”

Most perturbing are their claims regarding sexual violence. In the “Facts” section on A Voice For Men, they claim “Men are the overwhelming majority of rape victims.” However, none of the following statistics they present prove that. All the statistics have to do with the percentage of female aggressors in cases of child abuse, correctional facilities, or the inmates who report prison rape. These are all misleading. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, nine out of every 10 rape victims were female in 2003, while statistics show the over 80 per cent of sex crime victims in Canada are women.

Even more dangerous are their attitudes toward rape and rape culture. John The Other was quoted in Bedry’s Open File article as saying, “Maybe it’s a mistaken accusation, she doesn’t remember who she had sex with because she was drunk at the party or whatever. Some make accusations that have nothing to do with being raped; they’re angry, or they got stood up, they wanted to have sex with a guy but he said no. The fact that our society doesn’t have a balance for this is a major problem. I’m not suggesting every woman you meet is a loose cannon, but every woman you meet has the potential to be one, because for those few who are nutty, there’s no disincentive for them to go, oh, I was late for work. I know, I’ll just say I got raped.” This is speculative and revealing that, while MRAs say they are not anti-women, their attitudes are misogynistic at the core. The belief that women can and will falsely accuse men of rape in order to further their own ends is another symptom of the rape culture that MRAs claim does not exist.

“[They] definitely seem to see feminists as enemies. And so these men are in a position of power but are rallying people against their supposed ‘oppressors’. But since those aren’t real oppressors with real social power then it just ends up feeding into the same discrimination that women experience already,” says Deagan.

The clash between feminists and MRAs is tempestuous. “In my experience, their approach is quite reactionary as opposed to pro-active; I find they are more interested in smear campaigns against feminism rather than making a case for issues they think are important to men,” says Megan Karius, who maintains the Feminist Edmonton website. “They generally blame feminism for what they consider men’s issues and that ultimately detracts from their arguments.”

There seems to be a group of them that are quite vocal and quite aggressive so when they see something, specifically when they see women’s activists or anyone who’s trying to look at women’s issues, they kind of come in for the attack and so it’s very hard to have a reasonable conversation,” says Deagan.

I recognize that patriarchy is not only oppressive to women, but functions to oppress men as well. The term “patriarchy” is not some sort of imputation against all men, identifying them as oppressors of all women. Patriarchy is an institution; it functions at the cultural level and, while it does avail men with privilege, this does not mean that males are not also detrimentally impacted by patriarchy,” writes Jasmine Peterson in an article on the blog Gender Focus. This spurred a mocking, hateful response video from MRAs. The background of the video is a photo of someone in a gorilla mask with superimposed text that reads “Feminist sans makeup.” The men read her entire post in a mocking tone and present their own unsubstantiated facts, then go on to invite people to attack her.

The ones who have engaged me have generally taken one of two approaches: outright hostility and total dismissal of feminists as “cunts” or “feminazis” who are bent on bringing down men, or arguing more civilly that they don’t believe feminism is necessary because, in their view, society actually discriminates against men,” said Hodge.

They are just the latest trend in the ongoing backlash to the gains of the feminist movement we’ve seen in the past few decades.  While individual men may face structural inequality due to other aspects of their identity, such as race, class, sexual orientation, or ability, they still derive privilege from being male; I think the majority of MRAs are reacting to seeing some of their previously unquestioned privilege eroded and they are threatened by that,” says Karius.

One begins to wonder whether MRAs hate feminists, or are just rattled by women asserting themselves and challenging traditional modes of behaviour. Elam believes that the over-sexualization of women in the media is simply “recognizing women’s sexual power in this culture. Their sexual power gives them access to men economically.” He says that “sexuality generates a lot of financial generosity in men,” and some women are not only aware of this, but use it to their advantage. “We’ve been skewed by feminist ideology – we don’t see the power women have in our society,” he says. For how often MRAs accuse feminists of misandry, it’s incredibly ironic when they rely on arguments such as this one.  That statement is more insulting to men than anything feminists could come up with,” says Karius.

All this is not to say MRAs don’t have any valid claims. “We can and should absolutely talk about how our rigidly gendered society hurts men, but we can’t stop talking about the ways that women have been unequal and the ways in which women still suffer because of their gender,” says Hodge.

The issues MRAs have qualms with are basically class or social issues and have little to do with gender.

As feminism continues to be misrepresented and seen as some sort of hate movement, the goals feminists pursue become all the more relevant.

I think attacks by Men’s Rights Activists can be distracting from the issues and campaigns we’re involved in around women’s equality. It’s frustrating but I think most people who look at the issues can see MRAs tend to be pretty out-of touch,” says Hodge.

That being said, when I was waiting for Marshall’s interview, a man noticed I had been waiting for someone with a notebook and recorder and asked me about it. 

“I’m going to interview someone for an article,” I said.

“Who? And what is it about?” he asked

“I’m writing an article about the men’s rights movement,” I replied.

“Men’s rights! Ha! That’s a laugh! There’s no such thing these days!” he said as he walked off, guffawing.

Their attitudes may be outdated and misinformed, but many men agree with them. Examining gender inequality equipped with the wrong information can lead to some very troubling conclusions. MRAs create such noise in their political lobbying that they are bound to influence change. For example, a group called RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting) claims they have blocked four federal domestic violence bills in the United States. These are not the first legal implications MRAs have had, nor will they be the last if MRAs are taken seriously and feminism continues to be painted in a negative light. 

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The Myths of Bedford v. Canada: Why decriminalizing prostitution won’t help

Guest post by Laura Johnston. Laura is a law student who worked for Janine Benedet, counsel for the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, an intervener in Bedford v. Canada case heard in the Ontario Court of Appeal in June 2011.

I recently worked as a research assistant for counsel for one of the interveners in the Bedford v. Canada appeal. Bedford v. Canada challenges three Criminal Code provisions that criminalize parts of the prostitution industry as unconstitutional. In short, the provisions are communicating in a public place for the purpose of prostitution (which essentially criminalizes street prostitution), bawdy house (which criminalizes brothels) and living on the avails of prostitution (which criminalizes parasitically living off another person’s prostitution or pimping). The applicants, Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovtich and Valerie Scott argue that these Criminal Code provisions violate section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – the right to life, liberty and security of the person in such a way that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice. In September 2010, Justice Himmel ruled for the Ontario Superior Court that the 3 provisions were unconstitutional and struck them down. That decision has been suspended pending the appeal, which was heard in June in the Ontario Court of Appeal. The position of the Attorneys General of Canada and Ontario is that the prostitution laws on the books should stay exactly as they are. The position of the applicants is that all 3 provisions should be struck down. We are currently waiting for a judgment from the Ontario Court of Appeal as to whether Justice Himmel’s decision will be upheld or overturned.

The argument that decriminalizing prostitution will improve conditions for prostituted women sounds appealing on its surface. The first time I heard it I thought it made sense. But when I began volunteering in a rape crisis centre and shelter and met women in prostitution, I realized that decriminalization wouldn’t address the reality of women’s lives. This piece is my analysis from my experiences doing front line work, and in working on the Bedford v. Canada case. I’m going to argue that the idea women can be made safer by decriminalizing prostitution relies on a number of myths. I don’t think the position taken by the applicants or the government will help prostituted women, and in my conclusion, I’m going to discuss a third alternative, which was proposed by the intervener I did research for – the Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution.

There were 88 volumes of evidence – over 26,000 pages – submitted at trial. The evidence includes research, articles, and reports as well as affidavits given by expert witnesses and by women with experience in prostitution. All of the evidence I refer to in this piece is from the public trial record.
I want to make a brief note that I’m going to use the language ‘prostituted women’. I acknowledge that some prostituted people are male and transgendered. However, the overwhelming majority of prostituted people are female, and the overwhelming majority of pimps and johns are male. To de-gender the language of prostitution is to hide the fact that prostitution is a gendered industry. I use ‘prostituted’ because I’ve been asked by women with experience in prostitution to use that term, and not normalize the harm that was done to them by using language that suggests it’s a job like any other. But I also use it to reflect the fact that prostitution is largely something done by men’s choices and actions to women.

Myth #1 – This case is about the majority of prostituted women
Alan Young, counsel for the applicants, readily made the concession that their arguments don’t apply to the majority of women in prostitution. When one of the judges on the Court of Appeal interrupted him with the comment that his arguments seemed to assume women were voluntarily in the trade, he responded, “some sex workers have no choice, for some it is a choice. The point is there are people – 5, 10, 20% of the population – who want to do sex work and the law won’t let them.” The judge then asked how his argument impacted women who were coerced into prostitution. Young responded, “it doesn’t. That’s a social problem that social welfare agencies and social workers need to solve. I don’t want to sound flippant, but we’re not here to solve a crisis.”

The judge asked, “so what you’re arguing today only applies to women voluntarily in the trade?”
Young said, “most definitely.”

His estimates may actually be accurate. In a study submitted at trial with 854 women in 9 countries, including Canada, 89% of women interviewed said they wanted out of prostitution. In another study submitted at trial conducted in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, 95% of prostituted women interviewed said they wanted out of prostitution

What are the forces that keep the majority of women in prostitution while they say they want out? It was clear from both the research on the trial record and the affidavits of the women that prostituted women have many things in common. Nearly all the women said poverty is the reason they entered prostitution. Terri-Jean Bedford said in cross-examination, “poverty nips at your heels”. Another woman who gave an affidavit for the applicants said that she was trying to support a child with a serious heart condition and welfare wasn’t enough. The average age of entry into prostitution was reported as 14 and 15 by the research on the record. Many of the women who gave affidavits entered as teenagers – in fact, two of the applicants entered underage and the other entered at 18. Aboriginal women and racialized women are overrepresented in the prostitution industry. Many prostituted women have been incested, or abused as children. Many were removed from their families as children and placed in state care. Generally, they have low levels of education – many of the women who gave affidavits had not finished high school. These are just a few of the factors that maintain women’s prostitution.

The laws addressing prostitution can also constrain or facilitate women’s ability to exit prostitution. Criminalizing prostituted women contributes to their continued prostitution and is not a solution. A woman who has been convicted of a prostitution offence has even more barriers to exit prostitution because of a criminal record and restrictions on potential jobs.

But I don’t agree with the applicant’s contention that decriminalizing johns and pimps will have no impact on the majority of women. I think that removing the ability to police men’s actions in prostitution will increase the harm to the vast majority of women who want out. Evidence from other countries shows that removing the deterrence of the criminal law for men leads to increased demand for prostitution and a proliferation of both legal and illegal prostitution industries. Why make law based on the 10% of women who say they want to continue in prostitution, rather than the 90% who say they want out?

Myth #2 – Decriminalization will move women indoors and off the streets
The applicants claim that street prostitution is the worst form of prostitution, and that women prostituted on the street will be able to move indoors following decriminalization. However, evidence from other countries that have decriminalized brothels shows that women prostituted on the street do not move indoors. Even Justice Himmel, who made the decision at trial that is being appealed, noted that, “while it was hoped that the PRA [Prostitution Reform Act, 2003 of New Zealand] would lead street-based prostitutes (11 per cent of the New Zealand sex trade) to move indoors, evidence suggests there is little movement between the street and indoor sectors of the industry.” It’s also clear from the record that legalizing prostitution in the Netherlands has not met its goal of eliminating street prostitution. In Amsterdam, there are well established zones for street prostitution, including concrete stalls for men to drive their cars into to use prostituted women. Justice Himmel remarked on the ‘safety’ of these stalls by pointing out that women might be able to hear each other screaming when they’re with a violent john.

I’ve been told by many women with experience in prostitution that the first rule in a brothel is that you can’t be drunk or high. And the women prostituted in a legal brothel have to undergo regular screening for sexually transmitted infections. (Though no legalized regime requires johns undergo STI checks). Given that many of the women prostituted on the street struggle with addiction and illness, it’s doubtful they would even be allowed in brothels.

Myth #3 – Decriminalization will make prostitution indoors safe
The applicants claim that criminalizing communication for the purpose of prostitution contributes to men’s violence because women prostituted on the street have to move to darker, more isolated areas to avoid arrest. But if it’s true that the current laws endanger women by pushing them into isolated areas with fewer witnesses, then pushing these women completely out of public view behind the closed door of a brothel will not make them safer.

Arguments that women’s risk is higher on the street than indoors or that victimization is less likely to occur indoors imply that violence just sort of accidentally happens and that ‘victimization’ and ‘risk’ are things that belong to women. But women are not attacking themselves. The outdoors, the streets, the dark is not attacking women. Johns and pimps are attacking women. Since men’s behaviour is the source of violence in prostitution, if we wanted to address violence in prostitution, we would try to change men’s behaviour, not alter women’s physical location.

Women who gave affidavits of their experience in prostitution said that prostituting indoors is not safe. Some of the women said they preferred prostitution on the street because they had more control and they got to keep more of their earnings. Prostituting indoors means the brothel owner negotiates with johns. This person, whether they are called pimp, manager, or agency owner, has a vested economic interest in women pleasing johns, and is more likely to agree to johns’ demands to have sex without condoms and to engage in sexual acts women themselves wouldn’t agree to.

One of the applicants, Amy Lebovtich, reported in her affidavit that when she was working in a brothel a john tied her up and raped her. No one intervened and she was left tied up for nearly half an hour until someone found her. Another woman who gave an affidavit had this to say: “I have been raped and sodomized by johns while working in massage parlours, and was too scared and embarrassed to make any noise, and wouldn’t have even known who to call. Sometimes I would hear other girls screaming or crying and I didn’t know if it was part of an act or real. I never intervened…Screams in the house were frequent and no one ever got involved.” It isn’t exactly good business to report a violent “customer” to the police, even in a legalized regime.

Finally, there was ample evidence on the trial record that legal brothels in decriminalized countries serve as covers for child prostitution, trafficking in women and links to organized crime. In the Netherlands and Australia, the illegal sector comprises more than half of the prostitution industry. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women reported that in 2004 alone, 405 cases of trafficking in women were discovered in the Netherlands. The Dutch expert reported that there have been at least 50 documented murders of prostituted women in the Netherlands between 1992 and 2004 – several of these women were, “murdered in a brothel or ‘window’, and a few of them were murdered at home by their pimp.” She summarized her findings by saying, “…the new prostitution legislation of 2000 has not meant that prostitutes are now more safe. The ability to work indoors, the decriminalization of organizing prostitution and the legalization of sex work have not removed the risk of being beaten, abused or coerced…In short, the new legislation’s goals of reducing the violence against women and the exploitation of women have not been met.”

Myth #4 – Decriminalization will make prostituted women on the street safer
The applicants relied on the argument that in an effort to avoid being arrested for communicating for the purpose of prostitution, prostituted women would hurry negotiation with a john before getting in his car. They argued that this decreases the time a woman has to screen a john to see if he will become violent.
To suggest that if a woman had an extra few minutes, or even an extra few hours to screen that she could identify men who will be violent is a ludicrously dangerous idea. It’s as ludicrous as suggesting that a woman should have known that the man she spent all night ‘screening’ on a date was going to rape her. It’s as ludicrous as suggesting that a woman should have known the boyfriend she had been ‘screening’ in a relationship for a year was going to hit her. On average, one woman a week is killed in Canada by her boyfriend or husband who she had ‘screened’, lived with, loved, and raised children with for years. If the women’s movement has revealed anything, it’s that any man can choose to be violent and the woman he exacts it on is not responsible for that violence.

The idea of screening doesn’t address the violence in prostitution. In fact, it accepts that violent johns exist and will continue to exist and will continue to try to pick women up. It downloads state responsibility to stop men’s violence onto individual women. No matter how much ‘training’ or time women have, if nothing is done to stop violent johns, some will succeed. It accepts that some woman somewhere will not be “good enough” at screening or will be desperate enough for money that she will agree to get into the car even if she thinks the john will be violent. To suggest that a prostituted woman should be able to tell how a john is going to behave in the future is victim blaming taken to the extreme. Now, when a prostituted woman gets assaulted, raped, strangled or murdered it will be because she failed to screen her john properly.

Myth #5 – Decriminalization will enable prostituted women to hire bodyguards or drivers and prevent loving partners and children from being charged for pimping
The applicants claim that the prohibition against living on the avails of prostitution prevents prostituted women from hiring protection in the form of security guards and drivers. I’ve also heard more outlandish claims that a loving spouse or boyfriend or a disabled child of a prostituted woman may be charged through this provision. That doesn’t happen. The Supreme Court of Canada established in R. v. Downey that the legal definition of living on the avails is someone “living parasitically off a prostitute’s earnings”. That means it’s not enough to be financially dependent on someone having a source of income. You must have a vested economic interest in another person’s continued prostitution to be convicted.

If there were a supportive, loving husband or partner or child who shared living expenses with a woman earning money through prostitution, but took no part in encouraging, pressuring, or forcing that woman to continue, who would report this to the police? And if it did come to the attention of the police it’s highly unlikely that those individuals would be charged because prosecutorial discretion means that the crown won’t proceed with a charge unless it’s in the public’s interest and there is a likelihood of conviction. In R. v. Grillo, the Ontario Court of Appeal commented that, “a person may choose to marry or live with a prostitute without incurring criminal responsibility.”

Pimps who prostitute women are not supportive partners or beneficent bodyguards. They are men who use physical and sexual violence, drugs, and psychological manipulation, to make money off women. A search of the case law of people charged for living on the avails reveals just that. Not one of the cases convicted a loving and supportive person who happened to be the partner of a prostituted woman. In their affidavits to the court, many of the women with experience in prostitution revealed that the man they called their boyfriend was their pimp.

The benefit of the living on the avails charge is that it is one of the only charges in the criminal code related to violence against women that police can proceed on without the statement or testimony from the woman. The other criminal code provisions that pro-prostitution lobbyists point to for dealing with exploitive pimps require a woman to make a statement and testify against the very man who is abusing her. A lot of prostituted women are too scared for their safety to do that. Removing this provision takes away one of the only methods the state has for interfering with pimps.

Myth #6 – There are successful examples of decriminalized prostitution regimes
Young claimed that in countries where prostitution has been decriminalized, things are getting better and no one’s turning back the clock and saying they’ve made a mistake. That’s not true. Sweden did ‘turn back the clock’ in 1999 when they moved from a decriminalized regime to one in which johns and pimps were criminalized and prostituted women were decriminalized. The mayor of Amsterdam announced at a press conference in 2007 that the decriminalization of prostitution has failed. “Almost five years after the lifting of the brothel ban, we have to acknowledge that the aims of the law have not been reached,” said Cohen. “Lately we’ve received more and more signals that abuse still continues.” An Amsterdam police officer quoted in the media said, “we are in the midst of modern slavery”. The Dutch expert reported in her affidavit that, “the Dutch government is now planning to change the law once again. This is because the legislation of 2000 has not met some of its most important objectives – that of severing the link between prostitution and crime, improving the working conditions of all prostitutes, and to decrease trafficking in women and coerced prostitution.” Research on the trial record from Germany, Australia and New Zealand has shown that decriminalization has not improved conditions in prostitution.

Reports from these regimes consistently show that the prostitution industry – legal and illegal – expands following decriminalization. This makes sense. Removing criminal sanctions against prostitution sends a message to men that their prostitution behaviour is acceptable. In a capitalist system, increased competition between prostitution “businesses” leads to decreases in price, increased demand for riskier and more violent sex acts and increased pressure on women to tolerate the “customer’s” behaviour.

Myth #7 – Decriminalization will prevent another predator like Pickton
In his arguments, Young often used phrases like, “so women don’t end up on a pig farm” and “so women don’t go off with another Pickton”. But there is nothing about a legalized regime that would have prevented Pickton from killing women. It’s highly unlikely that the women Pickton killed would be allowed in a legal brothel. But even if they were, Pickton didn’t use brothels, he picked up women on the street.

The idea that women can “screen” for violent johns falls apart when you look at Pickton, who was a well known john. Women and community groups in the downtown eastside will tell you that Pickton used to take prostituted women and their kids to the PNE fairground. Some of the women he killed had been to his farm already and had come back safely. They (like you or I) could not predict his violence. But even after women became scared of Pickton, he admitted during his trial that if he used extra tactics, like offering them more money and bringing a woman passenger to reassure them, he was able to convince them to come out to his farm. Women living in poverty do not always have the luxury of refusing johns they are nervous about. If we do nothing to stop johns, they will find a woman somewhere who will go with them.

Since the applicants stated that this case was only about the 10% of women in prostitution voluntarily, there is a fundamental contradiction in using the memories of Pickton’s victims to further their arguments. When one of the judges asked Young if it would be acceptable to his clients to leave street prostitution criminalized and decriminalize keeping a common bawdy house, he said yes. He went on to explain that the heart of this case was the bawdy house provision. Which means he would be fine to continue criminalizing the very women whose murders he’s using as traction to legalize brothels.

This case is about ensuring men’s sexual access to women and deciding which women will be accessible
Decriminalization will ensure that brothels can be run, men can earn money on the prostitution of women and demand sexual access to women – all without fear of criminal sanction. If we accept men’s demand for prostitution as inevitable, we accept that there must be a group of women who will meet this demand. I think this case is really about deciding which women will bear the brunt of men’s demand for prostitution. The fact that the poor, the Aboriginal, the racialized, the addicted, and the abused are overrepresented among prostituted women is not a coincidence. Nor as Young said, are these facts “smokescreens” to talking about prostitution. These are very disturbing indicators that our society is marked by inequality, and it is this context of inequality that creates and supplies a pool of women for prostitution.

But Young was careful to avoid talking about this. In fact, he didn’t mention the prostitution of First Nations women until one of the judges asked him whether many of the women were of Aboriginal descent. Young responded, “yes and no.” He went on to say that while it wasn’t really clear, the point was that if one person moves indoors and doesn’t end up on a pig farm it would be worth it.

Prostitution is one of the devastating impacts that colonialism has had on First Nations women. This must be forefront in any discussion on prostitution. First Nations women in prostitution bear the most violence and humiliation for the least money. Aboriginal women have come out in force to resist prostitution. I encourage you to read the statements on prostitution made by groups like the Native Women’s Association of Canada or the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network.

But there were a lot of voices that couldn’t and didn’t make it into that courtroom. Terri-Jean Bedford admitted in an interview with the Toronto Star that a dozen people were paying the legal bills for this case, 5 of whom were her former johns. She said they wished to remain anonymous, but that they have paid “huge sums of money” and provided her with a house, a job and money. So, there are johns paying for this case to move forward.

What is the solution?
Although I think the position taken by the applicants will further harm prostituted women, the position taken by the government that continues to criminalize prostituted women is also unacceptable. The prohibition against communicating for the purpose of prostitution treats the actors in the prostitution industry – the johns who choose to demand sex for money and the prostituted women – as if they had equal power. They don’t. Criminalizing women further entrenches the harm to them and will be another barrier to them exiting prostitution.

But there was a third position before the court, which was argued by the intervener, The Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution. This Coalition is made up of 7 Canadian women’s groups: The Native Women’s Association of Canada, the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, The Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, Vancouver Rape Relief Society, Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes, Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle, and Regroupement québécois des centres d’aide et de lutte contre les agressions à caractère sexuel. The membership of these groups represents thousands of women and several decades of anti-violence and feminist expertise.

The Women’s Coalition takes the position that prostitution is a harm to women perpetrated by pimps and johns that should be abolished. They argue that prostitution exists because there is male demand for it, and it is this demand that should be criminalized. They asked the court to criminalize the prostitution behaviour of pimps and johns and decriminalize prostituted women. Legally, this means that the Women’s Coalition argued that the provisions criminalizing living on the avails of prostitution and keeping a common bawdy house were constitutional in whole and that the provision criminalizing communicating for the purpose of prostitution was unconstitutional to the extent it applied to prostituted women but was constitutional in its application to johns. I encourage you to read the factum submitted by the Women’s Coalition.

This legal model was pioneered by Sweden, but has since been adopted by other countries like Norway and Iceland. Since Sweden took the step in 1999 to criminalize pimping and buying sex and decriminalize selling sex, the majority of women prostituted in that country have been able to exit prostitution. They accompanied this legislative change with a public education campaign aimed at deterring men’s demand for prostitution and social service programs to provide exit services, housing, detox, education and job training to prostituted women. The 11 year report published recently by an independent researcher showed that the prostitution industry had shrunk dramatically while their neighbouring countries’ prostitution industries have grown. This comprehensive approach is something that the Canadian Parliament should enact, and we can all do something to lobby them to do that.

When counsel for the Women’s Coalition finished her arguments, the court adjourned for a break and conversations broke out. The most common reaction I heard was, “wow, that was an effective argument, but you’re never going to abolish prostitution.” I heard a lawyer say, “you wanna abolish prostitution? That’d be great, go ahead, I’d love to see you do that”.

I want to address the “prostitution is inevitable” argument as conclusion because I’ve heard it so many times and because it’s so illogical. In response, I’d first of all like to point out that that we almost never decide to remove criminal laws prohibiting something simply because it’s been around for a long time. Can you imagine someone arguing that murder should be decriminalized because it’s been happening as far back as we have documented history of, so we might as well legalize it?

Secondly, “you can’t stop it, so why try” has been the response to many social movements that tried to address deeply entrenched systemic inequality. When abolitionists argued that slavery in the USA should be abolished, they were met with arguments that society could never exist without slavery, many slaves were happy, slavery should just be reformed so there’s less killings, whippings and beatings. I’ve been told by anti-violence feminists who were activists in the 1970’s that when they suggested that wife battery was wrong, many resisted by saying wife battery could never be abolished, women should just go stay with their mom for a few days to get rest, then make peace with her man. But we do say as a society now that slavery and wife battery is unacceptable.

Finally, there is no logic in the supposition that because something exists it will always exist. It is insulting to men to suggest that they are incapable of changing their prostitution behaviour. I believe men are capable of treating others with respect, forming intimate relationships and sharing consensual sexual pleasure with others. The only world we have lived in is one controlled by the power hierarchies of sexism, racism and classism. I have every reason to believe that in a world free from these social inequalities, prostitution will not exist.


*All evidence and research cited in this article is from the public trial record


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Judaism and Feminism

Guest Blog by Benjamin Barer

If the recent uproar about Jews renting homes to Arabs in Israel (including this, this and this) has taught me anything, it is that the Jewish canon can quite legitimately be interpreted in almost any imaginable way.  That fact is both what has sustained the religion over millennia and what constantly poses a problem for anyone wishing to posit a uniform ‘Jewish view’ on a given topic.  The texts are complex and often (on the fact of it) contradictory.

Personally, I struggled with the notion of orthodox feminist Jews for a long time, as I saw the two concepts as mutually exclusive.  Only after talking to people willing to defend the existence of such people – and talking to some of those people themselves – was I able to understand that I wasn’t thinking deeply enough about the issue.  To ask what Judaism has to say about feminism, and whether the two can co-exist or interact depends much more on who you ask than on which texts are consulted.  Someone for whom Judaism and feminism are both important will have no trouble citing texts (if that is the proof that you are after) supporting a more egalitarian society than most strands of the religion practice today.  Equally easy is the task of finding texts that seem to make the mere notion of being Jewish and feminist absurd, which are quickly quoted by anyone who feels that Judaism is more important than feminism, or that Judaism is so archaic that it cannot accommodate modern values.  Ultimately, I agree with Dr. Wendy Zierler (Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at Hebrew Union College) when she says that “[i]f halacha [Jewish law] is a way of walking with God in the world, it cannot be compatible with a status quo that denies the personhood and rights of half of the Jewish community.”

One theoretical point is worth making here, though.  The blind spot that I had in thinking of orthodox feminists as a contradiction in terms stemmed from what I perceived as systemic oppression of women in orthodox communities.  It is therefore important to keep in mind that if your definition of oppression hinges on the agent themselves feeling oppressed or not will ultimately decide whether you are willing to entertain the notion of orthodox feminists.  As if you a priori assign a ‘status of suffering’ to all orthodox women, then there is little room to admit of women in such a society also defining themselves as feminists without wishing to remove themselves from their society.

So what does Judaism have to say about feminism?  Studying Jewish texts in an institution that is aware of and sensitive to the modern world we live in as well as the world in which these texts were written has exposed me to beautiful ways of making traditionally difficult texts jive with our modern sensibilities.  But at the end of the day it is more about whether one wishes to discard the tradition because of examples of moral imperatives contained in the text (and there are many) that are repugnant to modern readers or whether one wishes to save the baby while throwing out only the bathwater.

— Benjamin is a Philosophy student and recently returned from studying in Israel for four months.  He also hosts his own blog.

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