Monday, August 25, 2008




The secret "chill pill" for outrage: Grandkids
Aug. 22, 2008

Outrage is an opinion writer’s stock in trade. So at one level I’m grateful for having a deep vein of wide-ranging indignation inside me to mine as needed.
But just back from a holiday with the grandchildren, I’m also grateful for the things that allow me to let go for a while. Tending to the basic needs of young children is the best therapy I’ve found as a break from chronic outrage.
As any parent well knows, looking after young children is a full mind-body activity. I’m a superb multi-tasker in most areas of my life, but I can barely make it all the way through a single magazine article over the course of a long summer day if also charged with the care and feeding of three engaged and energetic little boys.
It’s a blessing that I didn’t appreciate the first time round, when I was a young woman fearful that my full-time life of raising children was turning me into the worst kind of bore.
In those days of endless skinned knees, playground visits and Kraft dinner lunches, I fantasized about having the time to think bigger thoughts. Now, I seek relief among my grandchildren from too much time spent doing that very thing, once again proving the old adage about grass looking greener from the other side.
We live in times that call for outrage, and I don’t much regret being born with lots of it at the ready for all the grand problems of the world. Still, I’m happy to have grown old enough to comprehend the world-changing potential of just looking out for the needs of young children, which obviously plays a key role anyway in the building of a better future.
When I’m in full grandmother mode - which is to say, returned temporarily to being a mother of young children, only with much more patience and sang-froid - I live happily in the moment. “Tomorrow” really means tomorrow, and the only thing about it that causes concern is how you’re going to keep the sandwiches cool enough to survive a hot couple hours at the beach.
Of course, even the best picnic lunch can never negate all of the woes of the world, particularly for a journalist couple who can’t resist buying at least the occasional newspaper in their grandparently travels.
So I won’t pretend we went indignation-free for the entire 10-day holiday. I won’t deny the occasional outburst over some bit of news that made its way to us (although not nearly so often as happens during our regular life, when we begin every morning with a coffee-and-newspaper routine that walks a fine line between beloved ritual and grim start to the day). Sad, bad and gloomy events continued to unfold around the globe regardless of whether we were on a road trip.
But the bad stuff just can’t take the same hold on you when you’re charged with looking after young children. Yes, things appear to be heating up worryingly between Russia and Georgia, but you’ve got three dripping popsicles to deal with right now and it’s just going to have to wait.
And should you manage against all odds to start into a rant anyway about some crazy development somewhere on this crazy planet, a young child will simply shut you down - either by falling headfirst from the monkey bars at that very moment or with a long, long anecdote about making it through to the sixth level of the new video game he’s trying to master.
Kids also knock the stuffing out of would-be outrage by cutting to the chase.
An example from this most recent trip: Having spotted one of those awful and arrogant “Best Place on Earth” licence plates that British Columbians have been saddled with, I was working up a head of steam on the subject when my five-year-old grandson interjected with a question. “Who’s second?” he asked. I couldn’t have made the point more effectively.
Re-entry into the workaday world is admittedly difficult after a holiday with the grandchildren. The descent is fierce and fast, usually starting with that first frightful peek into the e-mail inbox.
I’m always ready for the break from the rigours of full-time parenting when we get back, and curious to catch up on the news. But I still dread the first tingles of indignation returning (thanks, Tony Clements). I’d probably give the whole thing a miss if it weren’t for the fact that railing against the injustices of this world is another vital way we care for our grandchildren.
They give us the gift of living for today. I figure we owe it to them to worry about tomorrow.

Monday, August 18, 2008





Brothel tour lifts veil on fascinating world
Aug. 15, 2008

Apart from the impromptu lap dance I got last week from the middle-aged owner of one of Auckland’s sex clubs, the biggest surprise from my recent tour of New Zealand’s brothels was how unsurprising it all was.
Sure, the dress code’s a little racier and the product decidedly intimate. But much of the adult sex industry runs like any other business, distinguished as “different” for the most part only because we disapprove of what’s being sold.
I’m now home from travels in Auckland and Wellington with a film crew documenting the efforts of myself and former sex worker Lauren Casey to build a better brothel here in Victoria. It was a dream trip for a curious journalist, and I’m indebted to the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective and documentary director April Parry for organizing such extraordinary access.
I’m not so naive as to think that the brothels we visited are representative of the entire industry in New Zealand. Let’s face it, only the decent ones are going to welcome a film crew into their midst.
Nor will I tell you I was comfortable with everything I saw. I saw no evidence of coercion or exploitation, but the mom in me was nonetheless triggered by the sight of the younger ones.
I’ve learned through my own experiences that there are many mistakes still to be made when you’re in your early 20s, which tended to be the age of most of the workers. I wondered more than anything if they’d considered the immense stigmatization they risked by taking a job in the industry - which lingers on in New Zealand and around the world regardless of legal status.
Mixed emotions aside, the trip was an unprecedented opportunity for me. The chance to talk with the powerful advocates who changed New Zealand’s law also challenged my thinking. I came to see that there’s no “easy” way to move ahead on this issue - that it requires a full-frontal assault on the law.
Some of the brothels we saw were nothing more than houses tucked away in the suburbs, their tidy yards and pretty flower gardens providing no hint of the nature of the work going on inside. New Zealand’s laws allow any home-based business with fewer than four employees to operate in a residential area, and many sex workers who’d previously worked in brothels switched to working at home when the country legalized the adult industry five years ago.
Others - Auckland’s out-there White House, for instance, or Wellington’s neon-lit Il Bordello - wear their identities boldly. They were doing that long before the laws changed, mind you; the thing about the sex industry around the world is that it thrives in plain sight regardless of a country’s law, because there have always been people looking to buy sex and others looking to sell it.
There were some mid-size brothels that fell in between those two extremes - styled after small, simple hotels, some with spa tubs in the corner. We toured one place that switched to specializing in fantasy, converting most of its rooms into little stages for role play. One room was done up like a hospital emergency room; another looked like a classroom, but could also stand in for “the boss’s office.”
Those who grew up on Gunsmoke should give up any lingering image of saloon-style madams in fancy silk dresses. The only manager who came even close to the look was a vinyl-sheathed dominatrix working out of her home in Wellington.
I loved meeting her, because at 47, she was someone who was clearly happy in her work and certain about why she was doing it. She’d managed restaurants and then brothels, but last fall launched a home-based “dungeon” at the front of her heritage home. She fit the part beautifully in her head-to-toe black vinyl, but if not for the outfit, she’d have looked like any other 47-year-old with a management job.
The standard objection to the sex trade is that it exploits women. But how is it exploitation when an adult makes a free choice? I was really struck by a comment from Catherine Healey, the former sex worker who has been pushing this issue in New Zealand since the late 1980s. She acknowledged there’s definitely the potential for bad things to happen to in the industry, but criminalizing it just makes all of that worse.
If I could think of one good reason for treating a certain category of worker as less worthy than another, maybe I’d understand why the industry is still criminal in Canada. But I can’t.
Oldest profession much like any business
Aug. 8, 2008

The business of sex is surprisingly unsexy when you’re getting all you want, and our little film crew has certainly had its fill this past week in New Zealand.
Four of us are down here right now trolling through a few of the country’s brothels - legalized five year ago when New Zealand scrapped its Canadian-style laws against adult prostitution and started treating the industry like any other business.
The most immediate result of our travels will be a documentary next spring on Global TV. But what I’m hoping will be the ultimate outcome is the beginning of change in our own country.
Like Canada, New Zealand has long had an active sex industry and many, many brothels regardless of laws against them. The sale of sexual services has been legal here all along, as it is in Canada, so the 2003 changes were primarily about acknowledging the right to safe, fair workplaces for the country’s estimated 4,000 sex workers.
The naysayers - and there were many of them - predicted the worst in the heated debate preceding legalization: Dramatic expansion of the industry; a flood of new “victims” forced into the work; a rise in trafficking and organized crime.
Fortunately, New Zealand academics had the foresight to launch thorough studies of the industry before and after changes to the laws. That virtually none of the dire predictions have come true five years on has done much to shift attitudes here about the industry. We’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone in our travels who has lingering concerns beyond the usual zoning and location issues.
“For the five-year anniversary, we had a little celebration in parliament and even the prime minister dropped in to congratulate us,” notes Catherine Healey, a founder of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective that played a pivotal role in the long battle for legal workplaces.
As you might expect, the most significant change since legalization has been for sex workers.
“Sex workers throughout the world can tell you how it feels to have to talk to the police when the work they’re doing is illegal,” says Healey. “They can tell you about that phone call from the school and the fear of losing their child because someone has found out what they do for a living. They live with the knowledge that they can be picked up by the police at any time.
“Since the changes in New Zealand, all of those feelings have started to dissipate. Sex workers now know they have rights, and that they’re not lawbreakers. They’re finally able to be honest about what they do.”
With everything about the industry now wide open, new regulations requiring “all reasonable effort” be taken to practise safe sex make it easier for workers to convince reluctant clients to use condoms. (One such client has already been prosecuted for refusing to do so.) Brothel managers can talk openly with workers about safe-sex practices rather than in the veiled and coded language previously used to guard against a new hire turning out to be an undercover police officer.
Workers are far more willing to go to police with concerns or with information about violent customers, a change particularly noticeable among those working the streets. One of Healey’s favourite stories of late is of the police officer who inadvertently blocked a street worker’s line of sight to potential customers when he pulled his car up one evening. Suddenly realizing his mistake, the officer apologized and moved the vehicle.
It’s not all happiness and light, of course. A simple law change doesn’t eradicate every bad brothel owner or end exploitation.
Immigrant sex work remains illegal, an attempt to prevent cross-border trafficking that has instead trapped some workers in the shadows. Municipalities aren’t uniformally happy about having to govern the adult sex industry by the same rules as any other business, particularly around location. Abuse still occurs, and disadvantaged children remain at risk.
But what was bad about the industry was even worse when it was illegal, note sex workers. They now have the same rights as any other worker, including the ability to take a bad boss to court for sexual harassment or breach of contract. Like any other citizen, they’re finally able to turn to the police for help.
And with workers newly free to talk openly about their profession, they’re comparing notes more often and making different choices about where they work. The single biggest change with the legalization of the adult industry has been a shift away from brothels into small “solo” operations of three or four workers.
“It’s not like we’ve done away with all the problems,” acknowledges Healey. “But when it was illegal, the laws were always there to compound whatever problems a person already had.”

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Five years of fair treatment for sex workers in New Zealand

 Aug. 1, 2008
As you read this, I’m somewhere in Auckland, in the midst of an intense few days immersed in the New Zealand sex industry. I want to learn, and there’s no better way to do that than to go see things for yourself.
New Zealand had laws very much like ours governing the sex industry up until 2003, when the country changed course and decriminalized prostitution. I figure it’ll be a great place to look for really current information on what happens when a country stops viewing its sex workers as criminals.
Thanks to a law student from the University of Victoria, Hillary Bullock, I’ve got a binder full of information on how New Zealand made the transition. She was looking for a class project and I was looking for exactly what she delivered, which was a detailed report on how that country made it happen.
It was a remarkably fast transition. Introduced in 2000 by Labour MP Tim Barnett, the Prostitution Reform Bill was passed into law just three years later. Most aspects of consenting adult prostitution are now legal, while the “genuine harms” of prostitution have been separated out to be managed in different ways.
Like Canada, New Zealand’s laws up to that point made it a crime for an adult to solicit sex for money in a public place, keep or manage a brothel, or live on the earnings of sex work. Like us, the country tolerated a bustling sex industry while maintaining pretence of trying to eliminate it, trapping sex workers in a grey zone of quasi-legality. (Also like us, they had laws and policies prohibiting children from working in the industry and preventing exploitation and violence, and those laws have rightfully remained in place.)
If you’ve watched the creeping progress through government of any issue of significance, let alone one as controversial as this, you recognize how amazing it is that in just three years, New Zealand made it all the way to decriminalization. How did that happen?
That’s an important question for people like me, who want to be part of making something happen sooner rather than later on the same front here in Canada. Here’s how it unfolded in New Zealand:
Barnett had been a long-time advocate of sex workers’ rights, and it was his bill that ultimately got the attention of New Zealand’s House of Parliament. But many other organizations had been pressing for reform as well, including the Federation of Business and Professional Women, the National Council of Women, the national YWCA, and the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective.
Not all of the groups condoned prostitution. But they came together in recognition that continuing to pretend the industry didn’t exist was simply making things much worse for the people working in it.
Barnett’s bill was sent to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee for a hard look, and the committee drafted a four-stage process for reform.
• First, identify the risks from the activity. Coercion, sexually transmitted infections, and being trapped in the industry were all seen as examples of risk associated with prostitution.
• Next, identify which risks could realistically be dealt with by law, and which required public education, better community services, etc.
• Third, separate the risks that do need a special legal solution from those that could be covered by current law. Thus the issue of sex workers ages 16 to 18 was to be dealt with differently than the regular employment policies that would apply to adult sex workers.
• Lastly, create new prostitution law.

It all came to be, but not without considerable dissent. The law squeaked by in a vote of 60 to 59, ultimately helped along by a passionate speech to parliament from a fellow MP who was a former sex worker. “It is about accepting that which occurs, and it is about accepting the fact that the people who work in this industry deserve some human rights,” Georgina Beyer told her peers.
Those opposing the law cited a number of concerns going into the reform: growth of the sex industry; more visibility of street prostitution; an increase in violence against sex workers; the spread of disease and organized crime; the exploitation of children.
Research before and after the new law took effect found that hadn’t happened. Meanwhile, the the newly regulated industry could now be brought to task for the first time around health and safety issues, workers’ rights and contractual obligations.
That’s not to suggest that everything problematic about the sex industry vanishes when you decriminalize. But if the worst didn’t happen when New Zealand sex workers were finally given the right to earn a living, what’s our excuse for continuing to do nothing?