I have a confession to make. I don’t really see myself as a “protester.” I am not one who naturally chooses to hold up a sign and yell at the top of my lungs, and in fact sometimes I wonder how effective such approaches are. But last weekend I took part in a protest at Queen’s Park in Toronto. The goal was to demonstrate to the public that not everyone wants prostitution legalized in Canada. Timea Nagy, who is a sex trafficking survivor, and Katarina McLeod, who worked in the escort industry for 15 years, were there as well to express why they do not support legal brothels.
My friend Kat and I attended the protest together, and took the rest of the day to unpack many thoughts. Here are some of our reflections:
As you can see from the news clip, our group was not very large. A few more joined after the footage was taken, bringing our number to around 30. The pro-prostitution side has many vocal supporters who are keen to come show their support at various events, and some in our group were discouraged that our numbers on Saturday paled in comparison.
But the reality is that we were there on behalf of victims of trafficking and exploitation, who could not come protest because they were not allowed to. I wonder how many of them would have showed up if they had the opportunity. Also, there was no money in it for us to show up. We took time out of our schedules to be a voice for those who could not represent themselves, not because we were protecting monetary interests. In contrast, many of those who show up to support legalization are there because they are protecting their means of making money, or their “right” to pay for sex. Self-interest is a strong incentive for people to show up. For this reason, I was not surprised by the turnout, but hope that in the future there will be more who are willing to stand up for others.
Following the media interviews, our group decided to walk to the edge of the road to hold up our signs for traffic to see, and chant loud enough to be heard by pedestrians. The sign that Kat and I ended up holding said this: “Would men pay for sex if they went to JAIL for it?” The chant went like this:
“Free the women, charge the johns!”
This is where the effectiveness of protests becomes an issue for me. Chants and signs do not tell the whole story. I was fully in support of yelling “free the women,” and ideologically I also support charging men who pay for sex, because their demand is what fuels the industry of sex trafficking. I fully agree with Sweden’s approach of criminalizing the purchase of sex because it has decreased prostitution as well as human trafficking. However, does the complexity of what we are proposing come across clearly in a two-line chant?
I believe that charging men who pay for sex is part of the solution, because it is their actions that make trafficking and pimping profitable. But I also believe in the necessity for restorative justice. Yes, throwing someone in jail gets them off the street so they cannot keep exploiting others. But then what? They carry our their sentence in a place where they can meet more like-minded people, learn how to tighten up their game, and hit the streets without having experienced any remorse, or healing, or heart change.
So many of the men who feel entitled to women’s bodies were raised by fathers who did not respect women. Like father like son. In my mind there is absolutely no excuse for someone to hurt and exploit another, but I can see how easily it can happen when a person’s role model is setting a poor example.
The Deeper Things
Yes, we need to prevent legalization of brothels. Yes, we need to criminalize the buying of sex. But we also need to really examine what justice means. We need to set up a system in which men can receive healing from the hurt and abuse of their past. We need to teach young boys about how to respect and cherish women instead of using their cash to rent body parts. We need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage so that women who would otherwise be vulnerable can at least have a shot at something that does not put them in danger. We need to do much more than “charge the johns.” Despite this not fitting on a sign, my hope is that our chant, our signs, and our presence will get people to ask questions, because lives are on the line.
The anti-trafficking community in Canada really is amazing. It was an honour to spend Saturday fighting alongside people I love and respect so much. I also got to meet some HFTS blog readers, which is one of my favourite things in the world!
Reflecting on the day’s events with my friend Kat was so good for me, because it reminded me that though writing a blog is important, maintaining face-to-face relationships and connections is vital. If we want to be effective in ending human trafficking and the abuse of women, we must know each other and fight together. For those of you who came out last weekend, thank you!