Buying Sex Teresa MacInnes and Kent Nason

Buying Sex Teresa MacInnes and Kent Nason
It's rare for a subject as contentious and salacious as prostitution to receive such balanced, non-judgemental treatment. Co-directors Teresa MacInnes and Kent Nason deserve much praise for maturely and responsibly filming a documentary that goes to great pains to gather as many pertinent perspectives as possible for the sake of opening a discourse rather than sneakily pushing a strict agenda.

The narrative is framed by the landmark Canadian legal ruling that saw key laws regulating prostitution struck down along with the subsequent appeals by special interest groups representing the extremes of each side of the argument. Smug, high-profile Toronto lawyer, Alan Young, and happy, well-spoken former prostitute, Valerie Scott represent two of the loudest voices for the decriminalization of coitus for cash, arguing that not every sex worker is a victim, save needing laws that support a safe work environment.

On the other end of the spectrum, Trisha Baptie is also a former prostitute, but one who feels that she was pushed into the trade by circumstance and a history of abuse. Being from Vancouver, she has also felt the fear of living through the Pickton years first-hand and never misses the chance to invoke the friends she lost to that sick madman.

Now as a mother and community leader, she campaigns to abolish prostitution in all of its forms. Her argument is that just because certain aspects of society are omnipresent doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to change them.

Each camp has its share of supporters and detractors and the directors make sure to record samplings of those opinions too, talking to current sex workers and, quite significantly, a selection of Johns. Most are shot with face obscured and voice altered to hide the shame and stigma of being a regular purchaser of sex. Sexless marriages, with and without a consenting partner, is the reason most commonly mentioned among the customers interviewed, but there are a few proud users, including mentally and physically disabled men who feel that through a prostitute is the only, or at least most comfortable, way to experience physical intimacy in their lives.

Instead of just going back and forth about the speculative safety, power, control and morality of what a ruling either way would mean, MacInnes and Nason visit two countries where these opposing laws have been passed: New Zealand and Sweden. In the land of hobbits, prostitution has been made completely legal.

To see how regulation has changed the business, we meet a female brothel owner and her stable of girls. They all seem happy, healthy and intelligent. There are strict rules, including a no-drugs policy and a stringent screening process for clients to weed out any potentially violent weirdoes.

New Zealand hasn't become a utopian bawdyhouse zone by any stretch, with the older, impoverished streetwalkers still plying their trade as freelancers. Some simply don't make the cut and others refuse to work for anyone out of a mutated sense of pride.

Adding some academic and experiential reasoning to the matter, a number of professors and street level law enforcement representatives speak out.

Marilyn Waring of the Auckland University of Technology astutely points out that the main reason young women turn to the sex trade is a lack of more viable economic options. Spending a summer or two on your back is the fastest way to pay off a student loan.

The country's top porn producers, a husband and wife partnership, weigh in their two cents before the film revisits the legal proceedings in Toronto briefly then heads off to Sweden to see how zero tolerance is working out.

There, the documentarians talk to members of the police force trying to enforce the laws now that the industry has gone indoors, more Johns who simply travel farther to pay for their jollies, a fellow filmmaker concerned with emotional limitations of "manliness" and more academics who espouse the idea that doing away with the shame and stigma of sex work in order to foster honest conversation is more important than any temporary ruling that will surely continue to evolve as our society does.

Some of the abolitionists tend to bend logic to suit their needs (re-criminalizing will deter the demand that was already present in the first place?) but most of the parties involved come across as very level-headed and just want a safe environment for a line of work that will continue no matter what the law states.

Buying Sex can join Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown's Paying For It as essential information on modern thinking about the sex trade. (NFB)