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Justice Minister Peter MacKay addresses a news in Ottawa on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. The Conservative government has introduced legislation to criminalize the purchase of sexual services.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

When forced into re-drafting prostitution laws, the Conservative government chose to make them much, much tougher.

It's in some ways the opposite of what was sought by the sex workers who successfully challenged existing laws in the courts, arguing that forcing prostitution underground makes it dangerous. This bill will push it further underground.

But the Conservatives can hope for support from other political constituencies: those who oppose prostitution on moral grounds, like many evangelical Christians, and those who oppose it as exploitation, like many women.

So as Justice Minister Peter MacKay unveiled the new bill on Wednesday, he mixed moral outrage, calling prostitution "degrading" and johns "perverts," with earnest appeals to protect women.

This is an issue with a gender gap: women are much more opposed to legalizing prostitution than men.

Those kinds of looser rules, as Mr. MacKay made clear on Wednesday, were never an option for the Conservatives. In fact, they went in the other direction.

Prostitution itself is legal in Canada, though there were a series of related offences that made it illegal to operate a brothel or sell sex on the streets. Now for the first time, the buying of sex will be completely illegal, so johns can be prosecuted every time. Selling sex isn't illegal. But advertising it will effectively be banned, and large parts of the restrictions shot down by the Supreme Court have been revived.

It's far from what the sex workers were seeking: legalization, as in New Zealand, with some regulation. But the Conservatives would never go there.

It's not that most Canadians favour Mr. MacKay's plan. The Justice Minister touted the results of an unscientific internet consultation to say that's the case, but that flies in the face of consistent poll results.

A slim majority of Canadians, 50 per cent according to one poll last year by Forum Research, favour legalizing prostitution, both the buying and selling of sex.

But that's just not on for a Conservative government. There's a sizable minority against it (36 per cent), and just as importantly, more Conservatives are opposed, and key portions of their political base are dead set against it.

Among evangelical Christians, who tend to be Conservatives, 72 per cent are opposed to legalizing prostitution.

But there's another, far bigger group of opponents: women. Most men, 60 per cent, are in favour of legalizing prostitution, according to the Forum poll, and only 28 per cent are against. But women are more evenly divided: only 41 per cent of women are in favour, and 44 per cent against. The demographics suggest Conservative women would be more likely to be against it.

There's been a consistent gender gap for years, said Janine Benedet, an associate professor of law at the University of British Columbia, who represented the Women's Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution in last year's Supreme Court case.

She argued the law should be aimed at reducing demand for prostitution, because many women are forced or coerced into prostitution, and trafficked across borders. Laws targeting johns might change attitudes among men to convince more that buying sex is not acceptable, and reduce demand, she argues. There are unregulated legal brothels in New Zealand, she said, arguing that "You cannot tell me that does not put women at risk."

Of course, there are also women leading the charge to protect sex workers through more open laws. They insist that the government's new bill is as bad as or worse than the ones struck down last year by the Supreme Court, because criminalization of johns will force prostitution into unsafe places and practices.

Ms. Benedet suggested that the new law might be more resistant to a legal challenge. The old laws just regulated some of the aspects of prostitution, but this one outlaws buying sex, with a goal of reducing exploitation, she said. Legislating restrictions on johns is more likely to pass muster than criminalizing what sex workers do, she said. But the law will surely be tested again in the courts by sex workers who argue it still puts their right to security at risk.

Politically, however, a Conservative government forced to wade into an issue it never wanted to address will only want to ensure its new bill doesn't do damage. The Conservatives couldn't afford to alienate social conservatives in their base, but can also hope to win support from many women.

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