Canada close to getting it right on prostitution policy

by Andrea Matolcsi
Wednesday, 9 July 2014 18:51 GMT

Terri-Jean Bedford waves while leaving the Supreme Court of Canada following a hearing on the country's prostitution laws, in Ottawa June 13, 2013. Bedford is one of three sex workers at the centre of the case. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

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Canada is taking important steps to reduce the exploitation of women and girls in the commercial sex industry, but more needs to be done

Starting when she was 13 years old, Trisha Baptie was exploited for 15 years in the sex industry in Vancouver, BC.  Bridget Perrier, an aboriginal woman from Thunder Bay, ON was recruited from a group home, a residence for children or young people who cannot live with their families, when she was 12 years old and exploited for 12 years. Natasha Falle was lured into the sex industry when she was 15, and trafficked for nearly a decade across Canada before managing to escape her pimp, who was also her husband. All worked both on the street and indoors in illegal and legal “establishments.”

As the experiences of Trisha, Bridget, Natasha and many other women and girls, show, legal and indoors does not equal safe, voluntary and free of exploitation. Yet, some campaigners and politicians continue to call for the full decriminalisation of the entire industry in Canada, including brothel keeping and pimping.

The results in countries such as New ZealandGermany and the Netherlands, which have experimented with either decriminalisation or legalisation of the sex industry – both of which involve allowing brothels, and often pimps to operate legally, have shown that these approaches simply do not work.

Canada’s Justice Minister Peter MacKay seems to agree and earlier this month introduced Bill C-36, which aims to reduce the exploitation of women and girls – who are disproportionately represented in prostitution – because it recognises the harms and violence inherent in the commercial sex industry.

Equality NowEVE (Exploited Voices now Educating), which Trisha founded, Sextrade101, founded by Bridget and Natasha, and the London Abused Women’s Centre, led by Megan Walker, along with many other advocates and survivors around the world, welcome the progressive bill. Bill C-36 proposes to almost fully decriminalise the selling of sex, while containing measures to reduce demand and exploitation by criminalising those who buy sex, pimps, brothel-keepers and those who advertise another person for prostitution.

However, Canada needs to go further and ensure that the bill fully decriminalises people in prostitution. This means removing the problematic clause in the current draft of the bill that criminalises a person selling sex in certain circumstances, such as when "anyone communicates with any person for the purpose of offering or providing sexual services for consideration in a public place that is or is next to a place where minors can reasonable expect to be present." If it remains, it could result in the arrest and further victimisation of people in prostitution, many of whom have already experienced significant violence and discrimination.

Bill C-36 is being discussed by the House of Commons Justice Committee from today until Thursday. It is crucial that Canada’s lawmakers – and the public – fully understand what is at stake and what the different legal options are.

We emphasise this point because misinformation and confusion surrounding this bill is abundant.  For example, the Liberal Justice Critic recently equated the bill to prostitution laws in Russia – an inaccurate comparison as Russian law fully criminalises people in prostitution while allowing the purchase of sex from those over 18 years old.

In fact, Bill C-36 is largely based on the ‘Nordic’ or ‘Swedish Model’. Initially enacted by Sweden, Norway and Iceland, it has gained momentum across Europe. The model is currently being considered by the parliaments of FranceIreland and Northern Ireland and has been recommended for England and Wales by a cross-party committee in the UK parliament. This approach has also been recommended by the Council of Europe, where Canada has observer status, and the European Union, with which Canada has an official partnership. But the growing support for this model is not limited to Europe.

Across the world, in countries as diverse as India, New Zealand and South Africa, a strong and growing movement, including survivor-led organizations, has been calling for this approach as the only effective way to tackle commercial sexual exploitation and the inequalities it is based on.

The Nordic Model recognizes that people in prostitution experience a disproportionate risk of violence, physical and psychological harm, and that prostitution is based on – and reinforces – gender, class, race, ethnic, economic and other forms of inequality. It is not the same as full criminalisation, where everyone involved is criminalised – including the person selling sex – often under the rationale that they are doing something ‘indecent’.

Instead, the Nordic Model criminalises buyers, pimps and traffickers because they are seen as harming and exploiting people in prostitution. At the same time, it decriminalises and provides support to people in prostitution, including options to exit, because it acknowledges that prostitution is typically not entered into out of choice, but rather because of a lack of choice.

This approach also recognises that demand for paid sex is the main driving force behind commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. It seeks to reduce this demand by deterring buyers of commercial sex with criminal sanctions and the accompanying loss of anonymity – a major fear for many.

Right now, the Canadian parliament has a vital opportunity to pass a progressive ‘Canadian Model’ that would reduce sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, while promoting human rights and gender equality.

The world is finally beginning to listen to survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking. It is crucial now more than ever to learn from experiences on what has and has not worked elsewhere when developing and implementing policy, to ensure that we do not repeat failed experiments. 

Andrea Matolcsi is Trafficking Officer with Equality Now in London