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306 Academics Are Concerned About Canada’s Sex Work Laws

Experts across the country are worried that the Nordic Model, which would criminalize johns, would make sex work even more unsafe.
March 28, 2014, 4:28pm

Image of Valerie Scott, via Wikimedia Commons
Prostitution and sex trafficking are keeping headline writers in Canada busy these days (see: herehereherehere, and here).

This week, CBC has been on a sex trafficking news rampage, with broadcast and radio pieces, and a horde of online articles, including thisthis and this, to list only a few.

And on Tuesday, Conservative MP Joy Smith, a slavery abolitionist, fired back at National Post columnist John Ivison for suggesting that her recent report on prostitution laws, The Tipping Point, where she argues for a prohibition on purchasing sex, is seriously flawed and shouldn’t influence legislation.


Following the Supreme Court’s Bedford decision to strike down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, the government has until the end of this year to craft new ones. And the debate over their future continues, with hundreds of academics from around the world urging the federal government to fully decriminalize sex work in Canada.

An open letter sent yesterday to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and opposition leaders, is signed by 306 academics who complain that the federal government is “considering the introduction of new legislation to criminalize the purchasing of sex,” which they say will harm sex workers and hinder efforts to combat sex trafficking.

“We are calling on the federal government to demonstrate leadership when addressing these challenging issues by promoting evidence-based laws and policies that protect the safety, health and human rights of sex workers,” the letter pleads.

Kate Shannon, director at the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative based in Vancouver, which sent and published the letter, told me she hopes this letter will “provide another voice in terms of the discussion and the need for ensuring that any changes don’t recreate the same harms that the current criminalized model in Canada has created over the last 20 years.”

Such harms are outlined in the letter, including “increased violence and abuse, stigma, HIV and inability to access critical social, health and legal protections.”


The academics, who hail from all over Canada to Macedonia to Brazil, vehemently oppose the so-called Nordic or Swedish model of prostitution laws, which target the buyers of sex, not those who sell it.

According to the letter, the Nordic model is “not scientifically grounded” and a “large body of scientific evidence from Canada, Sweden and Norway” demonstrates that criminal laws targeting the sex industry, including clients and third parties, violate sex workers’ basic human rights.

Shannon says the Supreme Court of Canada was “very clear in its decision that criminalization was increasing risks to violence, abuse, and other health and social harms to sex workers. And that’s really echoed in evidence that we’re seeing in Sweden and Norway. Norway found rates of violence increased after the implementation of criminalization of clients.”

Another signatory, Viviane Namaste, professor at Concordia’s Simone de Beauvoir Institute, told me “it’s so easy to slip into a moral framework when we talk, especially around sex” and the goal of the letter is to encourage a conversation around prostitution laws that is informed by evidence and not morality.

The letter’s signatories also worry that criminalization of the sex industry will be detrimental to the fight against sex trafficking in Canada. “We know that where sex work operates in a criminalized environment, sex workers as well as those who are trafficked, fear coming forward to report violence and abuse,” Shannon says.


She says that Nordic model advocates tend to conflate sex trafficking with sex work—“the consensual exchange of sex for money among consenting adults”—and this conflation “really pitches everyone as victims and as a result puts sex workers in a really vulnerable position to report violence and abuse.”

The letter points out that in the US, and increasingly in Canada, funds allocated to combat human trafficking are often misused on anti-prostitution enforcement efforts.

So what would decriminalization look like in Canada? Shannon says it would mean that criminal sanctions targeting sex workers and their clients would be removed, and that sex workers would have the same access to workplace health and safety protections found in any other job.

Beyond that, Canada ought to look Down Under for inspiration.

New Zealand made prostitution legal in 2003 and, according to the letter, research shows it did not result in an increased number of sex workers and that sex workers were “significantly more likely to report abuse to authorities.”

“New Zealand is actually a perfect example of decriminalization that we could certainly look to and adapt from,” Shannon says. “In terms of how quickly that will happen, we hope we can at least stop the train that’s moving forward towards the Nordic model.”         @rp_browne