Thursday, October 20, 2011

Prostitution Around the World and At Home

I've been thinking a lot about prostitution lately, mostly because it's been crossing my path a lot. In my circles, people have been talking about the Canadian court challenges to prostitution laws. Then there was my trip to Amsterdam - you can read more about that here

And then, I had the chance to talk with Jessica Yee on Monday. Jessica is a self-proclaimed reproductive rights freedom fighter. One of the many things she works on is rights for sex trade workers.

The only thing I've learned from all of this is that no one is really doing it right.

I thought the model in Holland was pretty good but Jessica disagrees with me. She thinks that actual legalization is a problem because it puts too much control in the hands of the state. She is concerned with how the buying and selling of the red light rooms and valuation of the property affects how much sex trade workers have to pay for them. She thinks that having it legal only in those spots and the amount that has to be paid for those rooms, and that now, people must have an EU passport to work legally in the windows, bars a lot of women from working there. And as we all know, just because it's illegal, doesn't mean it's not happening. She worries that women will still work illegally and in unsafe situations with customers who want to pay less.

It's the same way in Sweden. Sweden plan to decriminalize the selling of sex but criminalize the buying has been praised by a lot of people, particularly conservatives who advocate the prohibition of prostitution. They think that this is a more 'humane' approach to the problem because it doesn't persecute the sex trade workers who they see as victims. It only punishes the people who buy sex. But it's not that simple. If you punish the buyer, you also punish the seller. Jessica told me that sex trade workers in Sweden are saying this does not work for them. It has only served to push prostitution farther underground where workers have less access to protection when they need it.

Jessica thinks that simple decriminalization is the answer. New Zealand is one of the few examples of that. Since 2003, brothels, escort agencies, and soliciting have been legal and unregulated there. This provides workers protection against prostitution but do they really have legal recourse if the need it? Are they taken seriously and supported if they report and assault. It's not just about whether sex trade workers and their clients are free to do as they please, it's about whether that activity can take place in a way that minimizes the risk of violence. Does this model do that? I don't know.

There is a lot of opposition to the Prostitution Reform Act in New Zealand. Ideologues and anti-prostitution advocates tend to have big mouths and lots of money. I think there's a good chance that they will force a change to this Act - either by pressuring the government to repeal it, or by just chewing away at it with small, probably local amendments, which is what they are trying to do right now.

The big question is, what will happen in Canada? With a Supreme Court challenge looming, there is a possibility that our vague and useless prostitution laws will be thrown out. What are we left with in that case? I'm guessing that the Harper government is crapping their pants about this one on a daily basis. The last thing they want is to be the government under which prostitution became legal in Canada. I don't think they would be for decriminalization and I certainly don't think they are ready to take on the task of how to legalize and regulate it. But I also don't think they want to be the ones to tackle this head-on and draft a new, clear law that actually makes prostitution illegal in this country. They're stuck between a rock and a hard place on this one and it'll be interesting to see where they go with it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

One of these Things is Not Like The Others

So today I'm catching up on everything I missed while I was away - which has included getting ready for the Taboo Sex Shows in Calgary and Edmonton coming up in November. I was reading through my exhibitor package and noted the very clear direction that nudity is strictly prohibited at the show. 'All models must be covered (ie. g-strings and pasties etc.).' This makes me reflect on my experience at the Venus Show in Berlin. Venus is Berlin's equivalent of Taboo - well sort of. It's much more focussed on video and on-line porn and less on toys than is Taboo. But it is mainly a direct to consumer sex show. Things are just a little different there. Trying to describe it is almost impossible.

When you walk into Venus, the first thing you notice is that there are probably 25 men for every woman walking the show. The next thing you notice is the throngs of men gawking and taking pictures and when you get closer to those clusters of men, you see that they are gathered around a woman or women doing a show. In Edmonton, the shows are mostly burlesque troops or fully-clothed pole dancers, or drag queens. At Venus, the shows are women doing full nudity strip shows, often with other women, often playing with a variety of toys and/or masturbating to orgasm. The women on the main stage often bring volunteers onto the stage with them and dance around them, blindfold them, grind on them etc. It's just a little different than back at home.

I have to admit, I did find it a bit shocking. The activity wasn't shocking to me as these things are a part of my life. But that you can do those things at a public trade show was the shocking part for me. One of our hosts from FunFactory said, quite succintly 'I don't think you could get away with those kinds of things in America' - or in Canada. The two things I was amazed by was the amount of picture taking - at every show almost every single man had a camera, or even video camera, and was busy snapping away. At one spot a woman was lieing back against a lounge chair with her legs spread open and several men held cameras no more than two inches from her naked crotch. It was full-on. The closest equivalent to Venus in the U.S.A. is the Vegas Show that accompanies the AVN porn awards. There, photography is strictly forbidden unless you've paid for a pass to take pictures. It does, after all, all come down to money.

The second thing that baffled me was the contact with consumers. As I said, men were often brought up on stage or approached in the crowd by the performers. You would never ever ever do this in North America. I was thinking about why that is and realized that it's not because this represents a line of safety and appropriate behavior that should not be crossed but rather because over here, we are deathly scared of a lawsuit. We are so afraid of liability issues - of the potential for someone to go over the line or to claim that they did not want to participate or that they got hurt - that we would just prefer that no one touch anyone ever. They don't seem to really care there. Now I noticed, of course, even though it wasn't really obvious, that there was a strong security presence there. If anyone got out of line, I'm sure they would be yanked out of there in a matter of seconds. In fact, I saw a guy try to reach over into a performance area to touch a woman who was performing - the guy running the tech equipment was close by and put a quick stop to that. It seems the performers say what goes. They do the touching. Everyone else has to abide by their wishes.

And that's just the point to me. We have so many rules about what you can and cannot do in public and seven ways until Sunday to stop people from getting out of control but is it necessary? The performers seemed pretty capable of taking care of themselves and the audiences seemed to be pretty clear on the rules although they weren't written or stated anywhere. This was, at least on the surface of it, a free-for-all. Yeah, it was pretty wild by our standards but did I see anyone who looked like they were out of control - hurting anyone else in any way? No. Not once. So do we need all these rules? Will we get out of control if we don't have them? I don't think so. I think we do have self- control. I actually think it's the rules that make us want to get out of control.

Friday, October 14, 2011

A Visit to the Happiest Place on Earth

I've just returned from two weeks of trade-showing and sight-seeing in Europe and I have a ton to write about. The best part of the trip was far and away the visit with Fun Factory so I'll start there. Any fan of sex toys knows that Fun Factory was the first big manufacturer of top quality silicone toys. They are located in Bremen, Germany and they make all of their toys right there. My partner and I were invited to spend two days with them in Bremen and they took us on a tour of their facility.

First, they showed us their offices - which are all one big open space. All of the departments work together to share ideas and plan new projects. This is Verena, their head designer. She is responsible for the G4 line and the click and charge Ocean - so we love her. Verena was surprised that I was kind of star-struck by her. To me, she's a bit of a hero, having designed so much pleasure for so many.

After we saw the offices, we headed over to the production building to see how they actually make the toys. We were lucky to get our tour from the founder of Fun Factory himself. This entire company started with him and a friend and a bit of silicone at his kitchen table. The first toy they produced was a dildo named paddy penguin. Now they produce over 200 different toys and thousands of units a day.

All of the rubber parts of Fun Factory toys are made right there at the plant. The silicone is kept in large tank on the first floor and pumped up onto the production floor on the next level where it's mixed with color and the curing components that give it it's texture and density. The silicone is then poured into molds, either by hand or by machine, depending on how many units they are making. Most dildos are still produced by hand because they are made in smaller numbers. Many of the vibrator sleeves are done on simple machines that pour the silicone and pull it out of the molds mechanically. Each toy makes a satisfyingly loud 'pop' as it gets pulled out of its mold.

Everything that goes into a Fun Factory toy is made in Germany. Most of the components are made right there on the premises but some of the plastic caps and electronics are produced elsewhere and shipped into the Fun Factory. All the assembly is done right there by hand. Once the motors are together and the sleeves come out of the molds, the toys are assembled.

Every single toy is tested to make sure that it works. Then they are packaged up and sent out to distribution.

The site also includes a quality control section, where any toy that is sent back is disassembled and checked to determine the problem. If faults are found, the engineering and production teams are notified and changes are made to the designs.

After having spent a day in Berlin looking at all kinds of toys and talking to toy companies from all over the world - and then repeating the experience the next day in Hannover, I got a real appreciation for what Fun Factory does. There are many toy companies who don't design their own products at all - they simply buy products that are designed and produced by large manufacturing plants - mostly in China. Then they come up with the packaging and put their name on it. It's a cheaper way to run a company but it doesn't put you in the driver's seat in terms of the look and function of the toy. Producing all of the product right there also means that they know exactly what's in it and exactly how it was made. It's a much different story when you merely commissioned the production of a number of toys for which you only saw prototypes. Is it really a good product? You don't know for sure because you didn't make it. At FunFactory, every single toy was designed by them and produced by them. They put an enormous amount of care and attention into their toys and it shows by the number of copies produced by other companies. They even have a book in the Fun Factory office documenting all of the copies of their designs.

We were told that at one time, anyone could come into the factory and have a look at everything - because they are proud of their production and they want people to see what they do. In recent years though, they've closed off parts of their production in an attempt to keep some of the technology they developed themselves, to themselves. It seems there's a ton of competition in the toy industry. There are many toymakers who would love to duplicate Fun Factory's success. Copying the technology that they spent a lot of time and money on is a much quicker route than doing it yourself. They are well aware that they will never be able to stop the copycats, they just prefer to hold onto their own work for their own use as long as they can.

So that was my trip to the Fun Factory. The whole thing was like a really fun episode of that TV show 'How It's Made'.