Sex since Trudeau

His revolution got lost in the '80s

I was seven years old when Pierre Elliott Trudeau introduced a bill legalizing homosexuality, therapeutic abortions and the distribution of information about birth control. At the time, it didn’t make much of an impression on me.

It was Dec 21, 1967, when as justice minister he introduced the bill, and told reporters outside of the House Of Commons that “there is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”

It was a revolutionary act, and a revolutionary speech. Gay sex between consenting adults had been a criminal offence. People could – and did – go to jail for it.

The bill became law Jun 27, 1969. At the time, that didn’t make much of an impression on me, either.

But my generation was the first to come of age in a world Trudeau had revolutionized. We came of age in world where we could access birth control, and when that failed we could get abortions. A straight issue? Sure, but many of us were. And we came of age and came out in a world in which gay and lesbian sex was, if not exactly socially acceptable, at least legal.

It was part of the sexual revolution for homos and straights alike that said that sex between consenting adults was no one’s business except their own. A sexual revolution that rejected Victorian attitudes about sex as sinful and shameful, and that began to insist that sex was actually a good thing.

It was the beginning of a revolution that never got finished. No politician ever since has had the guts to do it. So there are many ways the state continues to police consensual sex between adults. In the 33 years since Trudeau’s famous speech, very little else has been done to take these consensual acts out of the Criminal Code.

Through the 1980s, there were a number of amendments, and attempted amendments to the sex laws in the Criminal Code. Only one was about liberalization; the age of consent for anal sex was lowered from 21 years to 18 years. Most of the other initiatives to reform Canada’s sex laws were intended to make them tougher, not more lenient.

That decade witnessed an intensification of campaigns against pornography and prostitution, in which many feminist activists argued that women were degraded and dehumanized through these sex industries. The sexual revolution and the liberalization of consensual sex hit a road block. Sex and sexuality were being recast as potentially dangerous and harmful.

This feminist activism does deserve credit for highlighting the grossly inadequate ways in which the criminal law had dealt with non-consensual sex. Sexual assault is indeed dangerous and harmful to women, and the law did little to protect women from it.

But the distinction between consensual and forced sex seemed to evaporate in these campaigns, as pornography and prostitution came to be seen as thrust upon women, as a kind of sexual violence against women.


Several bills were introduced in Parliament to get tough on pornography and broaden Canada’s obscenity laws, but failed.

Prostitution laws were reformed. The vagrancy laws that were once used against prostitutes were repealed. But communication for the purposes of prostitution continues to be criminalized. So does keeping a common bawdy house, and living off the avails of prostitution.

The Criminal Code continues to prohibit a lot of consensual sex. Laws against indecent acts, immoral theatrical performances, anal sex between persons under the age of 18 or between more than two people, are still on the books, and are still used.

And they are still used against the gay and lesbian community. Over the last few years, we have seen an indecency conviction against Remington’s for Sperm Attack Mondays, and indecency charges brought (though later dropped) against patrons at The Bijou porn theatre for consensual sex occurring on the premises.

Laws against keeping a common bawdy house – defined as a place where prostitution or indecent acts occur – are still used against any and all commercialized sex. So too are the laws against street solicitation.

While not all of the sex that remains criminalized occurs in bedrooms, most of it does occur in private. But no matter. It’s still criminal.

Trudeau’s revolution remains unfinished. The state should have no place in the consensual sex lives of the nation – no place in the bathhouses, the sex clubs, the strip bars or private homes where folks sell sex. If it’s consensual, it should be legal.

It’s stunning that after 33 years, we are still fighting to finish what Pierre Trudeau started. And it’s a sad state of affairs that nobody in Parliament seems to want to listen.

Brenda Cossman

Brenda Cossman is a professor of law at the University of Toronto, the author of Sexual Citizens: The Legal and Cultural Regulation of Sex and Belonging (Stanford University Press) and a former board member of Pink Triangle Press, Xtra’s publisher.

Keep Reading

Job discrimination against trans and non-binary people is alive and well

OPINION: A study reveals that we have a long way to go to reach workplace equality for trans and non-binary people

The new generation of gay Conservative sellouts

OPINION: Melissa Lantsman’s and Eric Duncan’s refusals to call out their party’s transphobia is a betrayal of the LGBTQ2S+ community

Over 300 anti-LGBTQ2S+ bills have been introduced this year. This doesn’t mean we should panic

OPINION: While it’s important to watch out for threats, not all threats are created equally. Some of these bills will die a natural death

Xtra’s top LGBTQ2S+ stories of the year

The best and brightest—even most bewildering—stories from a back catalogue brimming with insight