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Survey finds split on criminalizing sex trade

Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the Conservative government will take consultation results into account in deciding on new legislation to govern prostitution. - File
Federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the Conservative government will take consultation results into account in deciding on new legislation to govern prostitution.
— image credit: File

Most Canadians think it should be legal to sell sex but not to buy it, according to a national survey that may guide the federal government as it drafts a new law regulating prostitution.

The Conservative government has until the end of the year to replace the old law against communication, which was struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada last December on grounds it forced prostitutes into dangerous circumstances.

Fifty-six per cent of the more than 31,000 respondents in federal consultations said it should be a criminal offence to buy sexual services, but a stronger majority of 66 per cent said it should not be a crime for sex workers to sell their services.

Another 62 per cent said it should be illegal to economically benefit from prostitution of an adult, although many respondents called for exemptions so prostitutes can hire bodyguards and drivers while criminalizing exploitation by pimps and others.

Ottawa has yet to signal whether it will seek to prohibit the entire sex trade, decriminalize it or follow the Nordic model used in Sweden, where only the customers are targeted by police.

SFU criminology professor John Lowman predicts the Harper government will criminalize both the purchase and sale of sex – which would go farther than the old law – but give sex trade workers a warning on a first offence.

That may risk another fight in the courts.

"Clearly criminalization will make it more dangerous for the women involved," Lowman said, but added he doesn't believe the government would accept a Nordic model where only johns' behaviour is illegal.

"That's institutionalized entrapment," Lowman said. "And I don't think it fits with Conservative beliefs about prostitution – they believe the women involved in selling sex are as much a part of the problem as the men involved in buying it."

Nearly 120 responses came from various organizations, about half of which favoured the Nordic model criminalizing only the buyers, 31 per cent urged decriminalization and 10 per cent backed outright prohibition of buying and selling.

Also released this week was a new study conducted by UBC researchers that was published in the British Medical Journal.

It argued a revised Vancouver Police enforcement policy targeting clients and third parties but not sex trade workers was roughly equivalent to the Nordic model but resulted in no decrease in physical or sexual violence.

Sex workers interviewed by researchers said police harassment of customers left them in much the same position as before – forced to work in riskier conditions where they have less control over their health and safety.

"The findings clearly show that criminalization of clients in Canada risks recreating the same devastating harms to the health, safety and human rights of sex workers as the last two decades of missing and murdered women," said report author Dr. Kate Shannon.

"Sex workers in the research were very clear: Where clients continue to be targets of police, sex workers' ability to protect themselves from violence and abuse or access police protections is severely limited."

Advocacy groups suggested they would launch a new legal challenge of a Nordic-style law that they said would expose sex workers to much the same dangers and harm that the high court found unconstitutional.

Legal sex trade? | Create Infographics
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