Canada Has a Crucial Test Ahead: What to Do About Sex Work

Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that the country’s ban on brothels is illegal, a landmark ruling that raises important questions for lawmakers, and for women’s rights as a whole.

In a unanimous decision, Canada’s top court overturned the country’s longstanding constraints on prostitution activity, saying that the laws regulating sex work are too sweeping. While Canada has allowed for prostitution, it expressly prohibited brothels, banned public communication with potential or returning clients, and made it an offense to live off the profits that were earned through sex work.

The case was brought by a number of women, Amy Lebovitch, Terri-Jean Bedford and Valerie Scott, who challenged that these restrictions endangered sex workers by forcing them out of brothels and onto the streets, and violated their rights by unduly restricting their freedom.

The Supreme Court agreed with an Ontario appeals court in siding with the women and decided that the restrictions in Canada’s current prostitution law are indeed overly broad. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said that:

Parliament has the power to regulate against nuisances, but not at the cost of the health, safety and lives of prostitutes.

The prohibitions at issue do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate.

They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky – but legal – activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risks.

You might think this would mean that sex work is now legal in Canada, but that’s not correct. The Supreme Court has given Canada’s lawmakers a year to decide on and pass new legislation that addresses these concerns.

Some legal analysts have already said they find it unlikely that lawmakers will pass up this chance for policy making. As such, it remains a question of whether Canada’s parliament will try for the tightest restrictions it possibly can, or whether it will open a genuine debate and listen to the concerns and needs of sex workers.

On that matter, plaintiff in the case Terri Jean Bedford has some opinions. She is quoted as telling CTV News:

“First of all, they have to take consenting adults into consideration. What we can and cannot do in the privacy of our home with another consenting adult for money or not,” Bedford said.

“Then they have to outline what a sex act is. And then draft laws that are fair and right, and that don’t put people in harm’s way, maim or kill them.”

Canada’s conservative federal government is said to be disappointed by the ruling, having defended the current laws as a means of protecting the individual and wider society from the so-called nuisance of sex work, and is assessing what they’ve termed a “very complex matter.” Individual ministers have been somewhat more forthcoming with their opinions, with Justice Minister Peter MacKay saying he would ensure that the law “continues to address the significant harms that flow from prostitution.”

That’s all well and good — there is plenty of evidence that unfettered sex work is dangerous because it leaves women highly vulnerable and open to exploitation — but treating women themselves as criminals and legislating from a view of moral disapproval of sex work only serves to endanger such women further.

Not only that, but it takes for granted that sex work must necessarily hinge on the exploitation of the party selling their wears. Is this necessarily so? Not always. While it is important to stress that there are a great many women who, through a variety of reasons, have found themselves in sex work and would wish to get out of it, there are those who do choose to be sex workers (though, again, it’s not a black and white choice: is sex work the best of a bad set of options, for instance).

We might say this is quibbling over semantics, but the difference matters. How are we going to target the appropriate services for these women, for instance help getting out of prostitution or helping with the underlying causes of their falling into prostitution (poverty, homelessness, drug abuse, domestic abuse), if the laws by which the industry is regulated treat them all the same, as criminals?

Some commentators have advocated the Nordic Model, which Sweden and other nations have used to decriminalize sex work while making paying for sex a crime. The idea is to shift the criminality from the women involved and place it on the men looking to pay for sex. There is some evidence that this appears to cut prostitution and sex trafficking, with many advocates pointing to the fact that Sweden’s records show sex work has virtually disappeared.

However, other campaigners argue that it really is just another ban that could harm the women involved: targeting the men who pay for sex will make sex work just as high risk, and potentially put women in danger by forcing them to meet men in “secret” locations, leading them into potentially hazardous situations with their male clients that could leave them vulnerable. Those opposed to the Nordic Model also say it acts as a smokescreen and that it fails to give an accurate reflection of the true state of sex work in the country.

As are many states in Europe, Canada is now faced with an important task that will test its mettle: legislating to meet the challenges that prostitution throws up without feeling the temptation to simply give in to morality policing. This will be hard given the strong religious conservative presence in Canada’s lawmaking chamber, but it is vital for the country that lawmakers take this issue seriously, factually and with no little amount of empathy. Some women’s lives might even depend on it.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Darryll Green
Darryll Green3 years ago

Steve A.who said anything about compulsory, i was stating that first they past gay marriage, now they are trying to legalize prostitution, next will come legalizing sex with children, a lot of people will be real happy then, are you one

Original Message:

Steve left a comment on the following article:
Canada Has a Crucial Test Ahead: What to Do About Sex Work
Darryll G. said 'first it was gay marriage, now possibly legalized prostitution, next it'll be sex with children' You'd better leave now if you're worried that they'll make it compulsory.

Steve A.
Steve A3 years ago

As a resident of Canberra, not just the capital city of Australia - its also known as the porn capital of Australia, I can assure you that brothels are legal here.

In fact the Canberra brothels do very well particularly then Parliament is sitting. I've met several brothel owners and working girls (not professionally) and they assure me that they have to 'import' staff from other cities to handle the high demand for their services.

As others have mentioned the businesses (generally) operate from industrial areas so the activity is low key.

One of the advantages of legalised brothels is that the press don't report on politicians who use them.

It's widely rumoured in the ACT that a certain prime minister was a regular patron a few years ago when he was a Minister in a previous government.

Steve A.
Steve A3 years ago

Darryll G. said 'first it was gay marriage, now possibly legalized prostitution, next it'll be sex with children'

You'd better leave now if you're worried that they'll make it compulsory.

Darryll Green
Darryll Green3 years ago

first it was gay marriage, now possibly legalized prostitution, next it'll be sex with children, what a bunch of dumb fu#$s

Dominic C.
Dominic C3 years ago

Sharon.... at the moment prohibition is out of the window in Canada. Live with it.

Sharon Perry
sharon L Perry3 years ago

I say stop prositution all together.. .. Stop the sex industry from happenning in our country.

Sharon Perry
sharon L Perry3 years ago

When judges legalized wifes and husbands having exchanged sex with other couples. That really set the fireworks. So much for legalized sex acts. Stupid people and their sex problems. make money for the law.. Sex parties.. married couples.. My god.!

James Travers
James T3 years ago

@Lisa L. You make some valid points, but one thing I would like to address. Some women LIKE being referred to as girls. My lady is one of them. And she is a very successful, extremely intelligent (multiple degrees), woman. She also believes prostitution should be legalized and regulated. Personally I'm not sure but then no one has asked or forced me to be a prostitute.
In my opinion it's like abortion. I can have an opinion but I have no right to inflict that belief on people who may disagree with me. That's one of the things I really dislike about human beings. They always try to impose their morality on others.

Natasha Salgado
natasha s3 years ago

Well it may not be most peoples choice of career...but these men and women have a right to feel safe at work--yes even sex work. In my opinion it should be legalized. Oh and not all women are uneducated-drug addicted crack heads and so called classless whores either. Many women in this field are actually well educated good individuals who've fallen on hard times---and as we very well know no resume-looks-race-religion or age is required...I feel sorry 4 those wives at home cos many of their clients are your husbands...

Dominic C.
Dominic C3 years ago

I have read very interesting comments on this topic. Look all, your suggestions and comments have sound bites but we must remember that many people in this world are unfortunate. You only have to look at the number of hot spots in this world and the aggrieved situation in Syria and many place else in the Middle East. We are talking about refugees and there are many desperate people including women and girls.These people will come to countries like Canada, advanced and with the opportunities in any way. Many of these people (refugees) are uneducated or have minimal education in some language, perhaps have limitations in reading and writing. What can they do? House them, educate the masses? Budgets? Responsibilities? The only people that will eventually trounce on them are criminals and underworld cartels. Women and girls will definitely be abused no doubt about that - but these women and girls need to live. How many police forces have budgets allocated to fight human trafficking and slavery? What we do not need is further the troubles of these women and girls. A child pornography website that mimicks an (Asian girl on the web) is set up by an NGO in Holland. If prostitution is legalized these groups of women can look after themselves and need not fall prey into unsavory hands.