A Review of the Documentary ‘Buying Sex’
Synopsis of Buying Sex (as provided on the National Film Board of Canada’s website):
“Timely and wise, this feature documentary explores the state of prostitution laws in Canada. Buying Sex captures the complexity of the issue by listening to the frequently conflicting voices of sex workers, policy-makers, lawyers and even the male buyers who make their claim for why prostitution is good for society. Examining the realities in Sweden and New Zealand, and respecting the differences of ideology as Canada works its way toward an uneasy consensus, the film challenges us to think for ourselves and offers a gripping and invaluable account of just what is at stake for all of us.”
Overall, I did not think that this documentary focused enough on the state of prostitution laws in Canada. Although it was very informative, I think the information was one-sided and focused on an exploration of the emotional divide between sex workers rather than a legal and informational divide.
For those who are more informed about the debate, the bias is obvious. What I don’t like about this is that this documentary was made for those who are not as informed about the debate, and I think it’s designed to compel the common viewer to adopt an abolitionist or Swedish model view.
I’m also not really alone in this opinion. Alan Young, the Canadian lawyer featured in the documentary wrote a 23 page letter to the National film Board of Canada arguing that the filmmakers intended to “advance the claims of abolitionists, and, in particular, to promote the adoption of the “Swedish model” (i.e a legal regime in which the buyer alone is criminalized) into the Canadian legislative landscape.”
One of the most concrete examples of bias that I can point to in Buying Sex, is how they portrayed the relationship between the sex worker and the needs of the clients. Initially, the documentary briefly features a young sex worker who says that she was already into kinky sex before joining the profession and naturally enjoyed going into that kind of sex work. Later on, the documentary gives much more attention to a past sex worker saying that the clients made her do humiliating kinky things. Buying Sex gives the appearances of presenting both sides of this issue, but the disparity between the amount of screen time says something else.
It’s also important to note that the documentary follows the self-proclaimed victimized sex workers more closely than any other perspective in the film. Although Buying Sex starts pretty strong, with diverse perspectives and balanced screen time between the positive and negative aspects of sex work, this impression quickly fades as it turns its attention more to the story of abolitionists and supporters of the Swedish model. The images of children and parenthood made me roll my eyes and reminded me of anti-abortion campaigns. Emotional arguments are fine, but when they are used to sway the public to a certain side, that’s where you lose me. The documentary focused too heavily on the experiences of a certain kind of sex worker in order to sway the public against sex work.
Buying Sex did not focus on the prostitution laws in Canada; it was a subplot. To me, the documentary was more focused on following the stories of those harmed by sex work and reinforcing stereotypes and stigmas. The male buyers they spoke with were not diverse; they were generally older and married. They did not speak to any male sex workers or female buyers. They did not showcase any LGBT sex workers and buyers. Buying Sex took the easy route of portraying the same stigmatized image of sex work, rather than showing something more nuanced.