Where next for prostitution law?

On March 10, 2014, Prof. Karen Busby, Dr. Shawna Ferris and Jennifer Richardson, an expert on child sexual exploitation, participated in a panel discussion on prostitution that asked the question: Where next for prostitution law in Canada? Busby said it is important to remember that the Supreme Court’s 2013 Bedford decision only struck down three prostitution laws: communicating for the purposes of prostitution in a public place, living off the avails of prostitution, and keeping a common bawdy house. There are still many prostitution laws on the books, including those that deal with children, exploitation and human trafficking. The Bedford decision had no impact on these laws, and there are other laws that can be used in conjunction with prostitution laws, such as sexual assault legislation and kidnapping laws. Busby argues Canada now has three options in terms of prostitution: let the struck-down laws lapse, move to criminalizing purchasers of sexual services, and legalization. She argues that we must approach the idea of criminalizing purchasers with caution. If we criminalize purchasers of sex, we will still run into the same issues that Bedford raised, possibly pushing prostitution further underground and making it more dangerous.

Jennifer Richardson argued that picking a model from another country and applying it in Canada won’t work. We must first examine research on the three main models and determine the outcomes. It would be helpful to look at the Canadian prostitution laws that were not struck down by the 2013 Bedford decision and figure out how to make them more effective.

Ferris argues that the Nordic model (criminalizing purchasers) is problematic for a number of reasons. First, this model sets up women as sex workers, and men as purchasers. Although this is true in the majority of cases, it excludes those who are trans-gendered, gay etc. Under this model, it is impossible to consent to sex work, while in fact some sex workers choose to engage in this industry. Finally, there are accusations of coercion in the Nordic model. Research out of Sweden shows that social services are being used to force people out of the industry. For example, police will watch for transactions and then ask the sex workers if they want help to exit the industry, insinuating there are consequences if they do not take the help. This threat could involve loss of housing or their children. Ferris said Canada should recognize that criminalization of sex work is a form of structural violence. In order to address the stigma, colonization and poverty related to prostitution, we need to multiply the options available to people. Criminalization will only restrict those options.

Watch a videotape of the presentation.

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