An Alberta MLA made headlines recently following his arrest for the solicitation of prostitution during an American business trip.  The arrest has lead to calls for his resignation, a dismissal from his party, and a public shaming in the media.

Sex is bought and sold all over the world every day, and most of it goes largely unnoticed.  It often takes high profile stories to bring the topic of purchasing sex into the public discourse.  The story is a thermometer, reading the public “temperature” about how we view the buying and selling of sex.

Many colleagues have commented publicly on this MLA’s arrest, with varying degrees of disappointment and outrage. Some have gone as far as to say they are “disgusted” by the MLA’s conduct. These comments are largely representative of the public perception of sex work and those who purchase sex.

While it may be scandalous and inappropriate for an elected official to solicit for paid sex on a business trip in a foreign country, are these actions disgusting?  If we remove the political sensationalism from the arrest, we are left with a reportedly unmarried man looking for paid sex.  Is it “disgusting” for him to purchase sex? If so, why?

If we can agree that sex is a basic biological drive, is there anything inherently wrong with an adult attempting to meet this need through a consensual transaction? Would the same sense of disgust be directed towards a man who uses a nightclub or internet dating sites to look for casual sexual encounters?  The consensual exchange of sex for money between two consenting adults is arguably no more harmful than consensual sex between any two consenting adults. Financial compensation in itself does not change this dynamic.

In Canada, the exchange of money for sexual services is completely legal (and always has been).  Communicating about this exchange, however, is not. The majority of arrests related to prostitution (of both the sex sellers and sex buyers) are related to this charge.  If this MLA were arrested in Canada, he would have been arrested for discussing his desire to purchase sex, not for the sexual transaction itself.  The public response to sex work-related arrests is almost always based on our feelings about sex work in general, not a strong response to the specific acts that the current laws apply to.

Another way emotion-based responses manifest in the public discourse is through a strong focus on the exploitation and trafficking of women.  The comments made by the arrested MLA’s colleagues referenced both of these topics, although the case itself did not involve exploitation or trafficking.

Public attitudes around sex work are largely shaped by images of street based sex work, addictions, and exploitative “pimping” relationships.  While these harsh realities of the sex industry do exist, it cannot be understated that these images represent one segment of a very large, very broad sex industry.

Many of the women working in the sex industry are choosing this work as a legitimate means of employment, at times even leaving middle-income “mainstream” jobs for this work.  It is inaccurate to speak about sexual exploitation and human trafficking as the rule, rather than the exception, when speaking about sex work.  Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding sex work allows very few opportunities for those who choose to do sex work to share their experiences with the public in a safe way.  Stories of human trafficking and exploitation, however, will always make the news.

AIDS Calgary Awareness Association supports the decriminalization of sex work.  This means that we do not support the arrest of those selling sexual services, or those purchasing them in our country.  We support the right of adults to choose their employment, as well as their right to be able to do this work safely.  We also support the rights of adults to choose to pay for consensual sexual services.  Click here for our detailed position statement.