Skip to main content

A sex trade worker is pictured in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, June, 3, 2014.. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan HaywardJONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The Conservative government has entirely missed the point with its proposed legislation on prostitution. Justice Minister Peter MacKay has touted what he tabled on Wednesday as a "made in Canada" law, but it looks an awful lot like a bad version of the Nordic model – used in Sweden and several other European countries – where police target the buyers rather than the sellers of sex.

This law breaks entirely new ground in Canada, where prostitution is currently legal. Now, the government wants to make it a crime to buy sex, or to communicate for the purposes thereof. It also makes it a crime to profit from sexual services and bans third-party advertising of sexual services in newspapers or online.

The basic problem with the Nordic model is that it boils down to a half measure. Prostitution is essentially a transaction between two people – a sex worker and a client. Legalizing the actions of one, while outlawing those of the other, impacts both sides of the equation. In the case of prostitution, it does so in an especially harmful way.

The selling of sex is forced into the shadows, making prostitutes' jobs more dangerous. Sex workers aren't able to openly negotiate for their services, nor are they able to effectively vet their clients and set their terms. All of this creates a hazardous climate for prostitutes. Pimps and johns could be punished with up to five years of jail time. Prostitutes, however, could face far worse fates if they are forced to sell their services underground.

On a very basic level, the proposed law does nothing to overcome what prompted the Supreme Court to strike down the old rules in the first place. Bans on street soliciting, brothels and people living off the avails of prostitution created severe dangers for vulnerable women and therefore violated the constitutional rights of prostitutes to "security of the person," the court found.

Licensing and regulation of prostitution would have been a better approach than the prohibition of purchase. What's been tabled instead has the potential to harm vulnerable women in the exact same way as the old rules did. The Supreme Court handed the government a golden opportunity by striking down the old rules. Mr. MacKay wasted it. Instead of drafting a safe, sensible legal framework under which sex can be bought and sold, the new law tilts toward criminalizing the process entirely. Now, prostitutes have even more reason to fear for their safety. Perhaps the courts will ultimately agree.