In 2009 and 2010, the Bedford vs. Canada case dominated headlines in the country. The legal challenge, to argue that Canada’s prostitution laws were unconstitutional, likely didn’t have a direct effect on most viewers of the news.
Perhaps the most memorable clips from the trial were those of applicant Terri-Jean Bedford, former prostitute and current professional dominatrix, who often went to court dressed in black leather and brandishing a riding crop.
But for filmmakers Teresa MacInnes and Kent Nason, the case presented an opportunity to explore the larger debate around prostitution and how laws in Canada can work to keep sex workers safe. What they found in making their film, however, were more questions, especially as they began to examine the demand side of the debate.
“I became fascinated with it because I sort of thought in the back of mind decriminalization is the best way to go,” says MacInnes, who’s been making films since 1988. “And I still debate that, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think a lot of people know about this perspective. And I think once you shift your mind to think about buyers and the male side of the equation it’s really hard to let go of.”
The film focuses on those involved in every side of the debate. There’s Trisha Baptie, a former prostitute who worked in Vancouver’s east side and whose former colleagues were also victims of Robert Pickton. She now is a staunch abolitionist in favour of the Swedish model, a feminist-based, zero-tolerance law which criminalizes the buying of sexual services. MacInnes already knew Baptie well; she was featured in a documentary called Teen Rebel/Teen Mom, MacInnes made when Baptie was still working the streets.
Nason and MacInnes also talked with Valerie Scott, another sex worker and applicant within the Bedford vs. Canada case.
There’s Alan Young, the lawyer who launched the landmark Bedford vs. Canada. Professor Janine Benedet, meanwhile, talks about how prostitution is connected with violence against women.
Nason and MacInnes spoke with a number of men, many of whom they recruited from escort review websites in Vancouver, Toronto, New Zealand and Sweden, all of whom are articulate in explaining their reasons for buying sex.
“I think we often look at this from the female perspective,” MacInnes says. “When we talk about sex work or prostitution, we sort of automatically think, ‘Does she want to do it, is she choosing it? Should she be able to do it or not?’ It becomes about the seller. We really did want to shift the conversation. That is what peaked our interest in the beginning.”
Examination of other legal models, in particular New Zealand, which criminalized prostitution, and again Sweden, ultimately shows that no system is without flaws. But looking at these systems opens up a larger debate about sexuality in general. Even Baptie seems to have an epiphany about the role of men in the bigger picture and seems to gain a more empathetic view of how societal-constructed male sexuality has its own restrictions.
The strength of the film is its unwillingness to focus on the supply and demand of sex work. Some of the experts interviewed in the film even connect prostitution with paternity leave. While that seems like a huge stretch, it’s part of the larger debate worth exploring and one that makes us all accountable on an issue many of us sweep under the rug.
“I didn’t connect it to gender roles,” MacInnes says. “That’s what peeked my interest, but I didn’t think it would lead us to paternity leave. For some people they are saying, ‘What does that have to do with sex work?’ If we train men to disconnect from children and relationships, you can almost understand why in Germany there are thousands of men who go to this brothel every day. It’s not just bad guy, poor woman; it’s deeper than that.”
Buying Sex is not an easy film to watch and it will certainly get you thinking. But that’s exactly what MacInnes and Nason wanted to accomplish.
“Just sit down, think about it, have a conversation about it,” Nason says. “Look at the various angles about it. Because this, like I said, is a very complicated subject. This film is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Buying Sex screens at Park Lane today at 3 p.m. More information can be found at www.atlanticfilm.com.