Buying Sex (First Run Features, R)

buyingsex 75_copyIf that sounds radical to you, consider this: since 2003, in New Zealand, prostitution has been legal, as is operating a brothel and street solicitation.

Discussions of prostitution tend to generate more heat than light, as is often the case with controversial issues (for Americans, gun laws and abortion are two more cases in point). The Canadian documentary Buying Sex is a welcome exception: it presents a variety of viewpoints on prostitution without insisting that the truth is already known and is the same for everyone.

The title is no accident, because the film begins with men discussing why they visit prostitutes, and throughout the film, the opinions of customers are included alongside those of prostitutes and others in the trade, including brothel managers, photographers, street wardens, as well as academics and others who offer their insights on the issue.

Buying Sex is structured around a series of court decisions, beginning with the 2010 decision by the Ontario Superior Court, in Bedford v. Canada, that three key laws against prostitution were unconstitutional—the laws against operating brothels, living on the profits of prostitution, and communicating for the purpose of engaging in prostitution (e.g., soliciting). In 2012, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of the decision, and in 2013 (after this film was completed), the Supreme Court of Canada struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, while allowing 12 months for the current laws to be rewritten to comply with the Court’s ruling.

If that sounds radical to you, consider this: since 2003, in New Zealand, prostitution has been legal, as is operating a brothel and street solicitation. Directors Teresa Macinnes and Kent Nason travel to that country to speak to people involved in the sex trade, as well as those opposed to it. As you might imagine, their stories and opinions are a great deal more varied and complex than can be summed up in a simple sound bite. She also conducts ample interviews with Canadians (including many involved in the sex trade) and visits Sweden, where buying sex (but not selling it) was outlawed in 1999 as part of an effort to increase gender equality.

The real takeaway from Buying Sex, in my opinion, is that laws should be based on the reality of people’s lives, and any evaluation of the benefits or detriments of the law should also be based on its real effects, not some moral abstraction or fantasy of an ideal world. To do so requires more maturity and information than to chant slogans, but it’s the only responsible way to make decisions. Even when Buying Sex gets to be a little inside baseball for my taste (tracing any legal decision through the court system can make a viewer’s eyes glaze, even when the subject carries inherent interest), it’s a well-made and thought-provoking documentary. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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