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Canada Must Target Buyers of Sex

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The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the Criminal Code offences around prostitution are unconstitutional. This ruling leaves police without important legal tools to tackle sex trafficking and organized crime and does not reflect a 1990 Supreme Court of Canada decision which stated that the elimination of prostitution through law was a valid goal.

Despite this ruling, the debate around prostitution is hardly settled. There are those who wish to legalize and normalize the industry, those who wish to criminalize all aspects of the industry, and finally those, like myself, who recognize prostitution as an industry that is inherently harmful to women and girls and therefore must be eliminated.

I am convinced that the most effective route to tackling prostitution and sex trafficking is to address the demand for commercial sex by targeting the buyers of sex. Countries that have legalized and regulated prostitution have seen sexual exploitation, human trafficking and violence towards women and girls increase drastically. In fact, a 2012 comprehensive study of a cross section of up to 150 countries revealed that legalizing prostitution increased sex trafficking. In contrast, countries like Sweden and Norway, which have adopted the Nordic model of prostitution, have seen a significant decrease in prostitution and sex trafficking.

The Nordic model of prostitution is effective due to its three approaches: explicitly criminalizing the purchase of sexual services, a national awareness campaign to educate the public that the purchase of sexual services is harmful to women, and finally strong support programs for those who seek to exit prostitution.

Many police services across Canada have already shifted to policing models reflecting the Nordic model approach that women, girls and vulnerable populations are victimized and profoundly harmed by prostitution. The Toronto Police Service, Canada's largest municipal force, mandates their Sex Crimes Unit Special Victims Section to recognize 'sex workers as victims first.' Vancouver Police Department's Counter Exploitation Unit acknowledges 'that Aboriginal women are over-represented' among prostituted women and focuses on assisting 'young people escape from the sex trade.' The Winnipeg Police Service's new Counter Exploitation Unit has also adopted 'victim first' driven investigations.

The harm caused by prostitution to women, girls and vulnerable populations has been well documented by women's and First Nations organizations. During the June 13, 2013 Supreme Court of Canada hearings, the majority of interveners that were directly opposed to legalizing and regulating prostitution represented women's organizations such as Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, Native Women's Association of Canada, and Vancouver Rape Relief Society. These organizations presented compelling evidence to the Supreme Court of Canada that legalizing prostitution would place women, girls and vulnerable populations at much greater risk of exploitation.

Even the buyers of sex recognize the harm caused by prostitution to women. A 2012 Canadian study on the buyers of sex called Buyer Beware, found that of the 20 men interviewed, 8 of the men indicated that they acknowledged that women were most harmed by their act of buying sex and another 10 of the men felt both the woman and the buyer were harmed. Result -- 90 per cent of the men who bought sex recognized the women involved in prostitution were harmed by act of prostitution. The same study revealed that all 20 sex buyers would warn a first time sex buyer against engaging in prostitution due to the harm caused.

Prostitution must be eliminated because it dehumanizes and degrades humans and reduces them to a commodity to be bought and sold. Legalizing prostitution is a direct attack on the fundamental rights and freedoms of women, girls and vulnerable people. In the same regard, continuing to criminalize the women and vulnerable populations being prostituted creates barriers that prevent them from escaping prostitution and entrenches inequality.

Let's be clear: those who advocate either approach ignore mounting empirical evidence and will find themselves on the wrong side of history and women's equality.

As a nation, we must ensure pimps remain severely sanctioned and prostituted women and girls are not criminalized and instead given meaningful escape routes out of sex work. Most importantly, Canada must focus on the real root of prostitution by targeting the buyers of sex.

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