While the Ontario Court of Appeal reviews a lower court decision striking down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, Canadians are seemingly faced with two extreme positions. On one hand, the three defendants are trying to portray prostitution as an occupation that can be made safer. On the other, the federal government is arguing that it’s under no obligation to protect those who make the “economic choice” to engage in what might be perilous behaviour.
But instead of siding with either of these positions – certain to put even more women at risk for sex trafficking – the Court of Appeal has the opportunity to move Canada in the direction of embracing a legal process based on human rights and women’s rights known as the Nordic model, which originated in Sweden and has spread to countries such as Norway, Iceland, the Philippines and South Korea.
Supporting a legal model that discourages the demand for commercial sex would be consistent with Canada’s internationally respected human-rights record.
First, countries that either decriminalize or legalize prostitution send an unmistakable signal to human traffickers that they are welcome to conduct “business” in their country. These policies create legal conditions that are hospitable to human trafficking, and countries that have legalized or decriminalized prostitution are witnessing a dramatic increase in both the demand for prostitution and the incidence of sex trafficking it fuels.
Studies also point to the inherent violence that is prostitution. Melissa Farley of Prostitution Research and Education has found that prostitution is built on a foundation of abuse, most often beginning in the childhood of the prostituted. The prostituted are then purchased and subjected to further abuse through sex. Dr. Farley has concluded that those subjected to prostitution suffer enormously from the repeated acts of violence done through commercial sex.
Second, prostitution is most often a practice of sex discrimination, in which girls and women are targeted for sexual violence. It’s a social injustice stemming from and perpetuating the world’s oldest inequality, the one between men and women. Women who are further marginalized through racial and ethnic discrimination rank among the most vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. Prostitution is also inextricably linked to sex trafficking. Decriminalizing prostitution ignores the underlying social inequalities that give rise to sexual exploitation and is fundamentally at odds with achieving gender equality.
The way to address an injustice is not to make it more tolerable but to eradicate it completely. The most effective way to address this oldest oppression is to create the legal, political and social conditions that give women an alternative to prostitution rather than working to keep them in the sex industry. In other words, social policy should reflect the right not to be prostituted.
Let’s not act to make the cages more comfortable – let’s eliminate the cages entirely. Canada should decriminalize the prostituted and address demand by penalizing the buyers.
This approach, the Nordic model, is based on the recognition that prostitution is violence against women, and that women are human beings who can’t be bought or sold for commercial sexual exploitation. It criminalizes the sex industry and their customers while decriminalizing those exploited in the sex trade. By criminalizing the purchase of a sexual act, the law identifies and penalizes the agents of the harm inherent in prostitution. It’s the only approach that will reduce sex trafficking.
Norma Ramos is executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.