Since when does a parliamentary committee turn into a showcase for religious revivalists and patronizing patriarchs? But at times the House of Commons Justice Committee, during its July 7-10 hearings on the government’s antediluvian and dangerous Bill C-36, seemed to become just that.

It wasn’t just Committee members like the near-caricature, “pro-life,” anti-gay and anti-transgender Joy Smith, M.P., mouthing inanities such as “Police have done a remarkable job on human trafficking because if you Google it, it comes up all the time,” or Stella Ambler‘s unconscionable trashing of witnesses opposed to the Bill, or the unspeakable Robert Goguen making grossly insensitive comments about rape to a friendly witness who had been gang-raped by three men.

Check out the witness list.

12 of the 50 witnesses were God-botherers who’d found themselves with a bully new pulpit. There was Hope for the Sold, funded through an outfit called ITeams; U-r Home, run out of the Newmarket Evangelical Church; Defend Dignity, a creature of Stephen Harper’s Christian and Missionary Alliance; Embrace Dignity, not the same outfit, but sharing the same dismal perspective; a missionary group called Servants Anonymous Society of Calgary; a representative from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada—and an EFC lawyer, Georgialee Lang, who mucked about in the Bedford case; Ratanak International, an evangelical organization that works in partnership with Harper’s church; Christian youth minister John Cassells; Calgary Police Chief and motivational Christian speaker Rick Hansen; Rising Angels, which partners with the EFC and with Defend Dignity; and Trisha Baptie of Exploited Voices Educating, who is the Executive Director of Honour Consulting & Ministries.

Some of these these folks may indeed, in their own spheres, do good practical streetwork. But they have nothing to teach us about women’s rights. Steeped in patriarchal religion, sometimes wearing the rhetorical clothes of radical feminists, they’re on a contradictory mission: not only to “rescue” those who don’t want to be rescued, but to put those they would rescue at further risk of harm in an already hazardous trade.

There is a distinct undercurrent of dishonesty that runs through the prohibition campaigns, highlighted by that very contradiction. The prohibitionists know very well, I suspect, that you don’t “stamp out prostitution” (as Tricia Baptie puts it) by passing criminal legislation, any more than you stop abortion by making it a crime. You just make both that much more dangerous for the women involved. Somehow Canada fumbled its way to the truth in the latter case way back in 1988, and the Supreme Court in Bedford has taken a similar approach here: the security of the women involved is a Charter right, and it is paramount. But the Conservative government, playing to its so-con base, isn’t going down without a fight. After all, by the time this gets back to the Supreme Court, the next election will be over, and in the meantime it makes great campaign fodder. Stand with us or stand with the perverts.

The real agenda here, of course, is not practical, but moral. The purpose is to impose an official stigma upon sex work, and, by extension, upon sex workers. It’s not that much of a jump, after all, from patronizing sympathy to hellfire judgement. And to conflate this issue with human trafficking, as many have done, is a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters and arouse public sympathy for the prohibitionist position, because human trafficking is already illegal, and they know it. The alleged emphasis on “johns” in C-36 is a diversion: whichever party you criminalize (and the women do not entirely escape this net even in the Bill), it’s the sex workers who will suffer.

If it weren’t for the serious, life-threatening risk to those workers that C-36 will create, the Justice Committee sideshow would have been a great popcorn event. Rarely do you get the chance to observe such a cacophonous medley of (no doubt well-meaning) Ladies Bountiful, male and female, fervently telling us all what’s best for sex workers. To note that the sex workers in question are in substantial disagreement is to miss the point, or, alternatively, to reinforce it. Those exploited, degraded girls are victims, even if they aren’t aware of it. And, by God, C-36 is about to wake those poor souls up.

[Photocred: Andy Griffiths. And thanks to some good folks for specifics.]