Selling Ourselves: Prostitution in Canada, Where Are We Headed?

Read the entire report as a Download PDF

A Comparison of the Swedish and the Dutch Models, and the Correlation Between Prostitution and Human Trafficking.

Executive Summary

Facing two constitutional challenges pending in Ontario and British Columbia, Canada should prepare itself to revisit our existing prostitution legislation and its effectiveness.  The court challenges aim to strike down relevant provisions in the Criminal Code which render all activities surrounding and related to prostitution illegal. The challengers argue that brothels should be legalized to ensure improved safety for street prostitutes. By moving prostitution indoors, this small group argues that prostitutes would benefit from improved work conditions, would be better able to screen their clients, and protect themselves from the violence of the streets.

This report compares and contrasts Canadian laws with the two opposing legislative frameworks adopted by Sweden and the Netherlands in their efforts to address prostitution. This report also explores the effects of each framework on rates of human trafficking into the sex trade.

Sweden chose to deal with prostitution by adopting a policy of gender equality, establishing that prostitution is a form of abuse primarily affecting women and concluding therefore that to legalize prostitution was to explicitly normalize and tolerate violent behaviour and disrespect toward women. Sweden regards gender equality as one of its most fundamental beliefs, and legalized prostitution would run contrary to that belief. In 1999, Sweden enacted the Law on the Prohibition of Purchase of Sexual Services, which criminalizes the purchase of sex while exempting prostitutes from any criminal charges. The Swedish government went to great lengths to promote public awareness and to ensure harsh penalties for “johns,” while providing supports for the prostitutes, such as aftercare and rehabilitation programs and tools for exiting the sex trade. This approach maximized the law’s effectiveness and aided in the implementation of Sweden’s zero tolerance approach.

In contrast, the Netherlands chose to legalize brothels nationwide and address prostitution from an employment and labour law standpoint. Their goal was not to eradicate prostitution but rather to normalize the sex trade in order to obtain transparency and to regulate prostitution. The belief was that this approach would protect women from violent clients and eliminate the organized crime component which, in the Netherlands like many other countries, had become associated with prostitution. The Dutch made a distinction between voluntary prostitution and forced prostitution of women and minors (human trafficking). Regulation of the prostitution industry did not achieve the hoped-for objectives. Organized crime and human trafficking have continued to flourish in the Netherlands while prostitutes still report
high levels of violence.

Prostitution has been shown to have a direct link with human sex trafficking rates in any given country. In the Netherlands, following the legalization of the prostitution industry, the country witnessed both an explosion in the number of women trafficked in from neighbouring countries and a significant increase in child prostitution. Sweden on the other hand, has experienced a marked decrease in trafficking following enactment of its 1999 law, because traffickers recognize and fear harsh penalties and view Sweden as an unattractive destination.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada therefore recommends that the Government of Canada adopt the following measures, which seek to both eradicate the sex trade and reduce rates of human trafficking across and within our borders:

  1. Follow in Sweden’s footsteps by adopting a clear abolitionist standpoint focusing on the punishment and prosecution of purchasers of sexual services.
  2. Redefine the societal and legal conception of ‘prostitution’ and recognize that it is, at its core, a violent form of abuse towards, and exploitation of, vulnerable women, children and men.
  3. Enact legislation which sets out harsh penalties for those who purchase sexual services (thereby curbing demand) while providing opportunity for support and after-care resources for prostitutes who desire to exit the sex trade.
  4. Draft clear and unambiguous legislation to accomplish these purposes and provide the financial resources to ensure implementation of legislation and effective enforcement.
  5. Understand that departure from the sex trade is a long and challenging process which often entails multiple attempts. Familial, peer and community support systems, support funds for education and aftercare must be accessible to better reintegrate those wanting to leave the trade.