For vulnerable Canadian young people ensnared in the sex trade, this morning's Supreme Court decision to allow legal prostitution is distressing. We at Covenant House, the largest agency serving homeless, runaway and trafficked youth in the Americas, believe it could result in an escalation of child prostitution and human trafficking, as it has in other countries where the sex trade is legal.
For example, in Germany, where prostitution was legalized a decade ago, human trafficking crimes have increased 70 per cent, and much of this involves youth. In the Netherlands, which legalized in 2000, it is estimated that child prostitution increased by more than 300 per cent between 1996 and 2001.
"We have grave concerns about the impact on vulnerable and homeless youth who are regularly targeted by those who force them into the sex trade," said Bruce Rivers, the executive director Covenant House Toronto, which serves 3,000 homeless, runaway and trafficked youth annually. (Our site in Vancouver serves 1,558 young people a year.) Today's decision, which struck down laws against brothels, street solicitation, and living off the profits of prostitution "does not address the plight of those who are being sexually exploited, particularly the young," he said.
Covenant House and other social service groups are calling on the federal government to penalize pimps and johns, rather than prostituted people. We need to eliminate criminal charges against people who are sexually exploited, minors in particular.
Instead of "re-victimizing" prostituted people in the courts, we need more support to enable them to escape their situation. In one study, between 85 and 95 per cent of prostituted people want to leave their situations, but there are only a handful of shelter beds in North America available to them. They need social services, including housing, medical care, counselling, education and job training, rather than a criminal record.
Mr. Rivers estimated that as many as 30 per cent of the agency's young people have been involved in some form of the sex trade -- a number consistent with Canada-wide statistics. But the numbers are likely far higher as young people are often too frightened to reveal their experiences. We do know, from a May study conducted by Covenant House New York, with Fordham University, that all the young people who had been trafficked or traded sex for something of value regretted having done so.
"Homeless youth are targeted by those who prey on their desperation and vulnerability to coerce them into the sex trade, where they suffer physical and emotional abuse and addictions," Rivers said. "When they come to us, these youth are among those most in need of counselling and support to change their lives."
Those of us whose primary concern is the protection of the young will be closely monitoring how the government proposes to implement and regulate prostitution. We advocate targeting the demand for sex-for-sale, in the tradition of the Nordic model, which sees the purchasing of a person's body as a human rights violation against women and other exploited people.
We agree with Elaine Craig, a law professor at Dalhousie University, who was quoted in this morning's Globe and Mail, in advocating for the safety concerns of people who are purchased for sex. "As far as I can tell, there's no constitutional bar to the federal government prohibiting the sale of sex for money," Prof. Craig said.
If Canada can join Sweden, Norway and France in punishing the purchasers and procurers of sex, we can help protect the most vulnerable young people in our country. Face it, not one 15-year-old in the country wakes up in the morning saying, "I'd really like to be raped by nine or 10 strangers today."
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