Hot Docs 2013: Buying Sex


After the screening of the Hot Docs documentary Buying Sex, there was a Q & A with the directors of the film. Anyone in the audience could ask whatever they wanted about the film – like why male or transgender prostitutes weren’t mentioned or considered, or why the directors didn’t have any scenes in Amsterdam. But the Q & A period wasn’t like that. Instead, it was mostly a series of long-winded comments on either side of the debate. Everyone was very passionate when they spoke, and a few debates broke out in the audience between comments. But what I noticed was that the people who were speaking were either unmoved by the documentary or had their beliefs reinforced. There wasn’t really any new ground tread or mistaken assumptions raised. The documentary exists, but it doesn’t illuminate the issues.

A recent documentary I saw a few months ago was Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. The basic story is pretty well-known: the governor of New York resigns amid the scandalous revelation that he was a member, and frequent client, of an upscale escort service. That was essentially the entire story told in the media: another stupid politician getting his just desserts. But the documentary told a different story and gave a fresh perspective of Spitzer. Rather than being a horny rube he was an effective, intelligent and tenacious prosecutor who had his sights set on the alleged corruption of Wall Street, making powerful enemies in the process. The documentary implies that financial moguls may have played a role in the demise of Spitzer’s political career to continue their unsavoury practices. But the documentary is important because it gives a different side of the story from that found in the media. It makes you question whether the personal life of a politician should derail a campaign against financial corruption, or if their personal life should even be in question at all.

Buying Sex doesn’t really shed new light on the issue of prostitution and decriminalization. They do have some interesting perspectives – especially from activists who propose a “third way” to address the problem by criminalizing demand akin to the Swedish model of law – but it’s not very persuasive or enlightening.

There’s a couple brief moments in the film that I really liked, and would have preferred to see a feature-length documentary developed around. I think it was one of the prostitutes in New Zealand (where prostitution is decriminalized and brothels are ordinary apple-pie businesses) who said that she felt more exploited working long hours for minimum wage than selling sex to clients. Another comment was that prostitutes aren’t “selling their bodies” (the common rhetoric for why its immoral), rather, they are selling “services.” I think these are interesting perspectives, and it would have been fascinating for the documentary to explore this route (why is prostitution bad or good) rather than asking whether it should be decriminalized or not.

If the measure of a great documentary is the passionate discussion it generates afterwards, then Buying Sex is a good one. But I think there has to be more than just passionate discussion – you need to gain a new perspective or have your assumptions challenged.

Grade: C+


4 Responses to Hot Docs 2013: Buying Sex

  1. Think says:

    I agree and I’ll go a step further – look at the pic being used to promote the film – Law Professor Alan Young in court robes.But the film doesn’t educate about the court case. It’s completely misleading, in fact. You get the idea that the court case is prostitutes vs. ex prostitutes about “competing visions”, right? This isn’t the court case at all. In fact, the abolitionists are only interveners in the case, and the judges in both courts told them that New Zealand, Sweden, etc. are irrelevant to the case because the case is about proving harm under the current laws, end of story. Their story is interesting, but it’s only relevant if the laws are struck down. Then they’ll get their day in Parliament, as all with a vision about how to change the current laws will.

    Prof Young is a constitutional and morality law expert. He did tons of research over decades and saw that while prostitution is legal, the current police, legal and judicial framework creates a cesspool of an existence for those arrested for prostitution. The Canadian AIDS Society also presented evidence. They can’t get to in to help under the current framework. Police tend to treat women badly because of how they’re marginalized. Police also use prostitutes as their eyes and ears on the street. How do they get info about gangs without putting too many undercover officers at risk? Prostitutes. Using the threat of arrest will often elicit information. But some police officers are against using criminalization to create informers. Where are their voices in the film?

    There are other real researchers and lawyers and politicians who speak to the problems of the current laws and how we can take prostitution out of the Criminal Code and use other government tools. Like John Conroy, Katrina Pacey, Libbey Davies, etc. etc. Each has a different experience of how prostitutes across Canada are having experiences like the ones Trishe Baptiste and the other federal government funded abolitionist groups are. And even if one wants to criminalize johns, or make prostitution illegal (yes it’s legal though you wouldn’t think so hearing the language of the film) then they can still use Bedford vs. Canada if the case wins as a catalyst to enter the discussion that will be triggered in Parliament.

    Charter rights are negative rights. They don’t provide visions if the case is put together properly. The recent decision about the disposal of the body in a stillborn birth – “pro-lifers” were hoping to get a decision about abortion rights as interveners. There’s a whole religious legal movement by the Catholics and Protestants which intervenes in court cases worldwide because they figure, post-Vatican II (for Catholics) that Charter rights are a violation of God’s law, and they are trying to reintegrate church and state. They have also intervened in Bedford vs. Canada. They say that the Criminal Code should be used to enforce religious moral edicts. They say mankind should not be able to determine the laws of the land according to our own conscience. That’s huge! Powerful worldwide churches spending millions to turn back the clock on charter rights.

    This is not a simple case of prostitutes vs. federally funded ex-prostitutes, which takes the federal government out of the equation. I don’t know why the filmmakers would deliberately not touch the case at all unless they don’t like the research, don’t like the judgements, could care less about the many viewpoints including the politicians who don’t want the case to win so they don’t have to address the issue in Parliament. I have to wonder if the abolitionists and the filmmaker were given an “anti-prostitution pledge” in order to get their funding from the federal government. George Bush did this to some charities in the US, and it’s resulted in a lot of misinformation about prostitution worldwide, and the pledge is now being challenged in court. After all, if it’s proven that we can use other government tools to discourage prostitution and make society work better around this issue and cost taxpayers less (criminalization costs billions) then why work so hard to misconstrue the facts to no one’s benefit, really?

  2. Think says:

    Oh, one more thing that could have been explored in the film – recently the Globe and Mail mentioned that there’s a public housing initiative in Vancouver which provides barrier-free housing to women – this is only one of the options available in the future, just not arresting women taking men into their dwelling for prostitution; rather than inviting businesses to run brothels. But again, this is a vision for Parliament should the SCC agree with the lower court judges that Bedford vs. Canada proves the current laws are unworkable. The federally funded former prostitutes turned abolitionists were harmed under the current laws in Canada.

  3. The Bedford parties featured in Buying Sex participated on the assurance that the goal of the film was to raise public awareness regarding the nature of the constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws.

    Regrettably, Buying Sex provides an incomplete and inaccurate account of the case. Through highly selected editing, the film marginalizes and trivializes the significance of the court challenge.

    Bedford v Canada is not about legalization, decriminalization or the ‘Swedish model’ advanced by some advocates. Nor is this case about polarizing a feminist debate. Bedford is about individual’s constitutional right to security of the person under s.7 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. For more information about the constitutional challenge, we have provided a full record of the Bedford case at:

  4. Modest Movie says:

    Wow – thank you both for the great comments and links to more information. It’s an interesting issue to explore, but I think you’ve both made a great point that I overlooked in my review: that Bedford v Canada is name checked in the film, but is shallowly, if at all, explored in detail.

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