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A sex trade worker is pictured in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, June, 3, 2014.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Canadians are not as staunchly opposed to legalizing prostitution as Prime Minister Stephen Harper says – in fact, they are evenly split on whether buying sex should be outlawed.

But a new poll conducted by Angus Reid Global suggests it is a no-win issue for politicians because it is marked by a big gender gap.

In fact, although Canadians generally support many of the changes Justice Minister Peter MacKay proposed last week, the overall bill revamping prostitution laws is unpopular. Women, in particular, like many of the restrictions, but still are not happy with the new law.

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The public, however, is not as opposed to legalizing prostitution as Mr. Harper suggested on Monday when he said it is "unacceptable to Canadians."

The Angus Reid online survey of 1,007 Canadians, conducted June 6-7, found 45 per cent of respondents believe buying sex should be legal, and an equal number opposed, while 11 per cent were not sure. A larger proportion, 51 per cent, believe selling sex should be legal.

The split on buying sex only hints at how divisive the issue is. While a majority of men (56 per cent) believe buying sex should be legal, a majority of women (55 per cent) think it should be outlawed.

"There are houses that are divided on these issues," said Angus Reid vice-president Shachi Kurl.

There is a wide gender gap on almost every question about prostitution – meaning that any government that tries to craft a law to please some of its supporters is going to upset others. Mr. Harper's government has come down on the side of a more conservative, restrictive approach.

Mr. Harper's government was forced to take the issue on because the Supreme Court struck down several sections of the prostitution laws in December.

The Angus Reid poll shows the initial reviews of Mr. MacKay's bill are negative: 47 per cent oppose it, and 35 per cent are in favour. Even among those who voted Conservative in the last election, only 45 per cent support the bill, while 37 per cent are against.

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The bill would criminalize the buying of sex – aiming at the johns – but not the sale of sex by prostitutes. But it also added restrictions, most of which are popular.

The new bill would outlaw communication to sell sex in public places where there might be children. The Angus Reid poll found an overwhelming majority, 89 per cent, agree with that.

Mr. MacKay's bill also bans advertising the sale of sex – a measure supported by a majority (56 per cent) and an even larger proportion of women (64 per cent).

What's unusual is that many of the measures are popular, but the bill is not. Ms. Kurl said women, in particular, endorse parts of the bill, not the whole.

This no-win nature is one reason opposition parties have focused on the fact that the bill might not withstand a court challenge.

NDP MP Françoise Boivin said she doubts the bill would pass the court's test of making sex workers safer – a concern echoed by Liberal justice critic Sean Casey. That may be one reason many women who favour the restrictions on selling sex also are not keen on the bill – it is criticized for failing to protect sex workers.

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Ms. Boivin said women's groups are deeply divided. Some believe laws must be softened to protect sex workers, and others believe buying sex should be criminalized because it exploits women. But protecting sex workers is a key concern for all.

Mr. Casey argued that the government knew it could not win politically, so it decided to err on the side of conservatism, even if the bill would be struck down by the courts. But he admitted the issue is a political bog: "Is there a way you can politically win? The answer is no," he said.

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