Monday, May 25, 2009

Craigslist controversy reveals foolish attitudes toward sex work

My experience is that you can stop any conversation dead by trying to talk about the sex industry. People’s level of discomfort in the subject is near-universal.
So indulge me in trying to steer clear of the squeam-inducing “sex” word for a moment by pretending that this ridiculous Craigslist hullabaloo is in fact about the sale of shoes. Please don’t take it as trivializing last month’s murder of a young Boston woman, as that’s definitely not the intent. I’m just trying for an analogy that might get us past the squirm factor long enough to think straight.
OK then. At issue: The sale of shoes through the on-line listings operated by Craigslist. People have been selling shoes for years on Craigslist and nobody seemed to mind, but something tragic happened in April that has changed that. A shoe seller was killed at a Boston hotel by a shoe buyer, who first contacted her through her ad on Craigslist.
Within hours of the murder, law-and-order types were condemning the practice of selling shoes on Craigslist. Wasn’t that how the Boston murderer was able to find his victim, after all? And given that any shoe buyer is a potential murderer, isn’t it in the interests of shoe sellers everywhere if customers are prevented from finding them?
Various state justice departments soon jumped into the debate. They cranked up the heat on Craigslist, threatening the company with criminal charges for its role in the murder of the shoe seller.
Alarmed shoe sellers tried to wade into the debate, raising concerns about losing an important advertising vehicle. But nobody listened. They’d bought that line about how 98 per cent of shoe sellers only did it because they were forced to, and figured the protests were simply the cries of people too exploited and beaten down to know what they were talking about.
Within a month, a beleaguered Craigslist had agreed to scrap its free shoe-listing service throughout the U.S. It announced it would be relocating shoe sellers to a category renamed “footwear,” and would be much more selective about who advertised there. A victory over evil was declared, followed by calls for Craigslist to do the same in Canada.
Anyway, you get the point. The nuttiness of the Craigslist saga would be pretty clear to all of us if the product was anything other than sex. But it’s like we lose our ability to think rationally when sex is the subject.
Can we ever imagine a time when we would respond to the murder of, say, a real-estate agent by making it harder for real-estate salesmen to advertise? The two things have nothing to do with each other. That there are predators who find all sorts of ways to bring misery to innocent people - well, that’s a given in our world. But you’re not going to fix that by making it harder for the innocent to advertise.
Sex workers already face considerable discrimination in advertising. The sale of sex is legal in Canada, but that’s not to say the ads come cheap. Advertising outlets all take advantage of the highly stigmatized industry by charging many times the going rate if an ad is sex-work related. We can tell ourselves such premiums keep a lid on the industry by driving up costs, but it’s really just an excuse to gouge money out of a sector that can’t afford to complain.
Were we truly interested in preventing the murder of sex workers, we’d provide safer places for people to work. The young Boston woman, Julissa Brisman, wasn’t killed because she advertised in the Craigslist “erotic services” category, but because a killer was able to get her alone in a hotel room. Robert Pickton’s victims didn’t die because they worked in the sex industry, but because a killer knew exactly where to find vulnerable women working alone in the dark.
Recent studies from the United Kingdom and the U.S. estimate that almost 20 per cent of men have used commercial sex services at some point in their lives. The U.S. study found that nearly a third of single men over age 30 were regular buyers of such services. Business is brisk: Nevada’s 25 legal brothels each see an average of 40 customers a day.
Sex sells. North Americans have been despairing about that for as long as Canada and the U.S. have been countries, but it hasn’t changed a thing. That we spend even a moment blaming any of this on Craigslist is sad affirmation of that.

Monday, May 18, 2009

At the request of the Times Colonist, I wrote a
book review of former CBC journalist Victor Malarek's latest, "The Johns." Suffice to say that Mr. Malarek and I have fairly different views when it comes to the subject of prostitution, although I respect his passion.

The piece ran in the Monitor section of the TC on Sunday, and you'll find it at the link above.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Our favourite drug causes major problems

Broken windows. Broken bones. Bar fights that spill out onto the street. The news of drunk young men and the latest harm they’ve caused in the downtown just keeps on coming.
The most recent news is of a Victoria police officer getting his leg broken after drunken young scrappers accidentally toppled him during a brawl outside the Pita Pit takeout restaurant. No doubt we’ll soon be talking again about early closure of the Pita Pit as a “solution,” as if the problem is in the gathering and not the fact that young men are drinking themselves into belligerent oblivion every weekend.
Not every young man is out there getting himself slam-faced drunk in the downtown, of course. Most aren’t. But a significant number are routinely drinking at harmful levels, posing a danger to themselves and anyone who crosses their path. That’s the problem we ought to be trying to fix.
I understand the appeal of alcohol, being a social drinker with a clear memory of how hard I drank myself for a couple of years when I was 14 or so. But that’s not to say I’m blind to alcohol’s many harms.
Even social drinkers risk long-term health problems from a lifetime of steady drinking. I co-wrote a book on addiction for ASPECT B.C. last year, and what lingered for me most from the research into the many drugs we take were alcohol’s powerful, lasting effects on every system of the body and mind.
And that’s just for starters. The one-off harms caused by a single night of drunkenness are legion. Car accidents, beatings, killings, robbery, domestic assault, sexual abuse, infidelity, on and on. We’re capable of immensely stupid and tragic acts when we drink too much.
For pregnant women, alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs a woman can take in terms of the potential lifelong damage to the baby. It’s a “teratogenic” - a substance capable of crossing the placental wall and wreaking havoc on a developing fetus at the cellular level.
Yet our resistance in Canada even to label alcohol bottles with a warning about that says it all when it comes to the sacred-cow status alcohol enjoys in our society. Case in point: the FASD Community Circle asked the region’s mayors a couple years ago to abstain from alcohol for nine months as a gesture of support for non-drinking pregnant moms, and none of them would do it. (Good on Victoria Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe and her husband for jumping in.)
Then again, how many of us would agree to nine months booze-free? The average British Columbian over the age of 15 now consumes more than 500 alcoholic drinks annually. Among college and university students, one in eight binge-drink every weekend. Each year’s alcohol-sales stats show us drinking a little more than the year before, helped along by the 9,000 liquor stores and drinking establishments that now operate in B.C.
OK, so we love the stuff. But we’re going to have to get past that if we want to deal with the larger problems of harmful alcohol use.
UVic’s Centre for Addiction Research (CARBC) and the provincial medical health officer have done excellent work on this topic. They note that by 2002, the costs of alcohol-related problems in B.C. were already exceeding tax revenues from alcohol sales by $61 million a year. We’ve pushed those revenues up a little further every year since then by drinking more, but the alcohol-related harms always seem to increase faster.
CARBC advocates a variable liquor tax tied to the amount of pure alcohol in a particular product. In countries that have tried such taxing strategies, a beer with less alcohol sells for less than one with a higher level, which encourages consumers to buy lower-alcohol brands. The reverse is true right now for some alcoholic beverages in B.C.; coolers, for instance, actually get cheaper as alcohol content increases.
B.C. medical health officer Dr. Perry Kendall has urged the B.C. government to consider the impact of allowing 500 more liquor stores to open in the province in the past seven years, an increase of almost 40 per cent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that consumption has gone up eight per cent in the same period of time.
We need a campaign - one that motivates through education, price point and prosecution, with particular relevance to the age group causing the bulk of the trouble downtown. We’ve danced around the edges long enough with our debates around pop-up urinals, staggered bar closings, and forced closure of takeout joints for the sin of selling food late at night.
The problem is drunkenness. The solution is less of it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's been quite a week. Canucks knocked out of the playoffs, Gordon Campbell's Liberals re-elected, all hope of electoral reform tossed out the window.
The Canucks and Campbell - so it goes. I've been waiting for the Canucks' big win for most of my lifetime, and I guess I still am. And on the Campbell front, it's not like I'm a solid supporter of any party. Still, it's discouraging to see that the Liberals can decimate the social supports of B.C. without getting even a sniff of kickback at the polls.
But the electoral-reform issue - oh, that one has broken my heart. I'd put a lot of stock into STV passing. Probably too much, in hindsight, but to me a "yes" vote would have been a signal that British Columbians were ready for real change. It's not like I thought STV would solve all the problems we endure due to the way we elect governments, but at the very least a yes vote would have been a clear statement that we want something better.
Instead, it got trashed. The politicians have no love for voting systems that give the people more power at the best of times, and we just handed them a perfect excuse for never having to raise the subject of electoral reform again. So that's it, then.
A while back, maybe when the Twin Towers got bombed, I discovered that Bobby Bare's version of "Blowing in the Wind" is the kind of song for moments like this.
I listened to it over and over that day in September 2001, and again when George Bush declared war on Iraq. It's playing on my iPod right now, and I might just keep it on for the rest of the afternoon. Hopes and dreams for a better B.C., blowin' in the wind...

Friday, May 08, 2009

Why I'm voting 'Yes!' to STV

You probably know who you’re voting for in Tuesday’s provincial election. I’m not going to try to influence your decision, other than to urge you to vote with brain on and eyes wide open.
But I do want to influence your vote on changing B.C.’s electoral system. You’ll have the chance to vote on that issue as well as pick an MLA when you go to the polls this Tuesday, and hopefully you’ll vote yes to STV.
The acronym stands for Single Transferrable Vote. Far more informed people than I can give you the lowdown as to the details of STV (I’ve listed some Web sites at the bottom of this column), but the short version is that it’s a way of voting in which the makeup of the legislature more closely mirrors the popular vote. If 45 per cent of voters pick Party A, 30 per cent pick Party B and 15 per cent pick C, then that will be the party breakdown inside the House.
The party that wins the biggest percentage of the popular vote still forms government, as is the case now. But individual MLAs wield more power in an STV-elected legislature. Ruling parties don’t get the run of the place to the same degree as they do under our current system.
The theory is that such proportional representation creates governments that are more responsible to those they govern. Critics of STV rightly note that there’s a higher risk of unstable minority governments under such a system. Supporters point to the benefits of more coalition-building and compromise, and the much greater chance of smaller parties and independents getting elected.
Many countries of the world use versions of STV. British Columbians were very close to that point themselves in 2005, when nearly 58 per cent of provincial voters said yes to the province’s initial STV referendum.
Alas, the threshold had been set at 60 per cent for that referendum (and this one), and so the vote failed. Now we have a second opportunity.
As I mentioned, I’m not an expert on voting systems. I doubt many of us are, or plan to become one in time for Tuesday’s election. Fortunately, a group of 160 randomly chosen British Columbians have already done the legwork for us.
Known as the Citizens’ Assembly, those 160 hard-working volunteers put in close to a year of research, public hearings and community presentations in 2004 after being asked by Premier Gordon Campbell to take on the task of assessing voting methods and recommending the best one.
The one they picked was STV. And if that’s the informed opinion of a diverse, apolitical citizens’ group after many months spent learning and listening, then that’s good enough for me.
In a “first past the post” system like the one we have, the only votes that ultimately count are those for the victorious party. The 1996 election year revealed the risks of such a system, when just 39 per cent of the popular vote went to Glen Clark’s New Democrats and yet the NDP still formed a majority government.
The 2001 election highlighted another quirk in the system. That time out, Gordon Campbell’s Liberals won 57 per cent of the popular vote, yet claimed 98 per cent of the seats in the legislature. For the next four years, B.C. was essentially a dictatorship, and not a particularly benevolent one.
With STV, every vote counts. You rank your vote - picking a first choice, a second, a third and so on - and thus are no longer picking one candidate but helping select a team of MLAs for your riding. Your first pick may or may not go on to win election, but your vote will still count for the candidates who were your backup choices.
The surplus votes of a landslide - wasted votes as well in their own way, seeing as the candidate didn’t actually need them to win - are also eliminated under STV. Once a candidate has secured enough votes to win election, any surplus votes for that same candidate instead go to voters’ second choices.
No voting system alone guarantees fair governance, of course. STV is merely a different way to vote, not a panacea for all that’s wrong in the legislatures of our country. But I think it’s our best chance for reminding governments who they work for.
Here are a few STV sites to get you started: Citizens' Assembly; Wikipedia; STV campaign; Michael Gobbi site. Or check out the Webcast of a Times Colonist-hosted debate on STV.
See you at the polls May 12.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Are we sure we're still on the way up?

I suppose every generation wants to believe it’s improving on the past. That’s how it always seemed in my history lessons at school, too - that we were intent on working our way up, from “primitive” to medieval to Renaissance and right on through to the enlightened human beings of modern times.
We’ve made some remarkable progress. We’re healthier than we’ve ever been, and easily surviving diseases that once used to kill us off in vast numbers. We don’t just talk about human rights, we enshrine them in our laws. We wear our seatbelts, bicycle helmets, sunscreen and in-car sobriety with pride, and are better for it.
I used to ponder ugly moments in history and feel grateful for not having been alive in those years. The destructive and stupid behaviours of human beings through the ages baffled me, but I was happy that my generation dwelt in kinder, gentler times and was in turn leaving a better world for their own children.
But is that what’s actually happening? Is life in Canada improving? I’ve got my doubts, given the wear and tear of two decades of federal and provincial governments whose actions have seriously eroded the social fabric of the Canada I was born into.
I don’t mean to suggest another Crusades is imminent, or that we’ll soon be using wild animals to kill off the old and weak in front of a cheering crowd of thousands.
But the disasters of history start out small - one thing and then another, each piling on top of each other to bend a country in a way that no one had expected. The emergence of a growing underclass in Canada is of no small concern.
The decline most evident to me after most of a lifetime in B.C. is a loss of economic and political power for the “common people,” if you will. It’s a subtle change that has come about incrementally, aggravated by a prevailing political ideology in which minimal government is the stated goal even while power and money accumulate at the top in ways that are very nearly feudal.
An interesting statistic, courtesy of child advocacy group First Call and Stats Canada: Between 1989 and 2006, the richest 10 per cent of B.C. families with children saw their average annual income rise 30 per cent, to $201,490. In that same period, the poorest 10 per cent of families saw their income fall eight per cent, to $15,657.
The richest of the rich in Canada more than doubled their average yearly income in the years between 1982 and 2004, to $2.5 million. The years weren’t as kind to families in the bottom 10 per cent, who by 2004 had average income of a mere $6,000 a year.
That’s not to say rich people aren’t entitled to their wealth. No doubt many work very hard for the money. But the growing gap between the rich and poor in Canada didn’t come about because the rich work hard and the poor are lazy. We’ve had a series of governments whose policies have made things better for those who already had it pretty good, and considerably worse for those just getting by.
In B.C., one of the first things to go was the fishing industry, given away by Ottawa to a handful of wealthy men. Next was forestry, to the point that even the land where the trees once grew now gets handed off to developers without a whisper of consultation.
Our social systems have become twisted versions of themselves, to the point where our governments reward themselves for taking away people’s benefits.
In the first year of B.C.’s intensified crackdown on welfare under the Liberals, a deputy minister received a $15,400 bonus for slashing the welfare caseload by 22 per cent. Eight years on, there’s little evidence that anything about the immensely costly welfare-to-work years have benefited British Columbians (see A massive increase in homelessness in the same period has in fact increased the cost and extent of poverty dramatically.
Meanwhile, employment insurance is now so difficult to get that barely 30 to 40 per cent of unemployed Canadians qualify for it, even while Ottawa sits on a $54-billion EI surplus. If you feel frustratingly powerless to change such things, as I do, that’s a pretty serious signal that we’ve lost control of our governments.
In less than two weeks, a new government will be elected in B.C. For the sake of a better tomorrow, please pick with care and thoughtfulness. And vote “yes” for STV, which at least puts a little power back into the hands of the people.