When Ottawa police officers began focusing their arrest efforts on johns instead of prostitutes two years ago, they were trying out an approach that would wind up at the centre of a vigorous national debate.
They found weapons such as a gun and a Taser, bondage materials and date-rape drugs on some of the 205 men arrested in the sweeps since 2012. At the time, police were searching for suspects in the murders of at least two prostitutes.
“We were trying to [tell] them, look, we don’t want you in the dark alleys either, so hopefully they would have some opportunity to be in a safer environment … but at the same time we weren’t going to give up on johns,” said former Ottawa police chief Vern White, now a Conservative senator.
The approach mirrors the so-called Nordic model – Swedish and Norwegian strategies that criminalize the purchase of sex, rather than the sale, and uses social programs to encourage sex workers to leave the business.
Diverse groups and individuals, including Conservative MP Joy Smith, have called on the federal government to adopt that model in the wake of the Supreme Court decision last month that struck down Canada’s prostitution laws.
Other groups, particularly those that represent sex-trade workers, oppose the criminalization of any party involved in the exchange of sexual services, arguing it keeps the practice in the unsafe shadows.
New Zealand is sometimes held up as an alternative model. Prostitution there has been largely decriminalized, although restrictions on minors working in brothels remain in place.
White said he’s pleased that the country is finally talking about how to approach prostitution. He said the Nordic model has merit, but might need to be altered – to ensure the prostitution of minors remains illegal, for instance.
“I think it does force us to have a serious discussion around, is there a ‘Nordic model-plus’ that’s out there, are there other options available to us?” said White.
“I do think it’s a healthy discussion for us to have and I do think we’ll have to come up with something in the next few months to help us deal with this.”
White said the Senate would be an ideal venue for a comprehensive study of Canada’s prostitution laws.
“I do agree that with the amount of research that’s done with those committees, as we saw with [the] human rights [committee] on cyberbullying, I think there would be a real opportunity to do some work,” he said.
“It would have to be done a little more quickly than usual, you’d have to really crank it out this spring, so I certainly think the Senate would welcome that opportunity if the minister [of justice] engaged with us to do that.”
Fred Chabot, vice-chair of the board of Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work, Educate, Resist (POWER), said her organization is hoping any parliamentary study or consultation involves actual sex-trade workers.
She said the group and the women it represents are opposed to the Nordic model because they feel it actually makes life more dangerous for prostitutes.
“If you criminalize one part in the exchange of money for sexual services, what happens is that once again you have an industry that is pushed into the margins, pushed into dark areas, in places where there is less chance of police supervision – alleyways, parking lots,” Chabot said.
“If clients are criminalized, sex workers – especially street-based sex workers, which are at higher risk of violence – will jump in the car right away.”