Prostitution not an equal crime for men and women

Independent sex workers, or victims? The justice committee reconvenes today to consider amendments to the Supreme Court-mandated bill on prostitution. Can Justice Minister Peter MacKay resolve some of the bill's inherent contradictions?

Possible amendments today on Ottawa's 'Protection of communities and exploited persons act'

Safe communities or safe women? Some feel there is an inherent contradiction in the federal government's proposed new law on prostitution. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

When it comes to prostitution, it all comes down to numbers  and the harsh reality on the streets.

Right now in Canada, we treat prostitution as if it were a level playing field where men and women partake as equal partners and are punished even-handedly.

But is that fair?

Here are the hard numbers I got from the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics when I was writing a book on human sex trafficking.

In 2012, just over 1,200 Canadians were charged with prostitution offences under the Criminal Code. They were pretty much evenly split between men and women — 680 men and 547 women.

But given the vulnerable role women have in the sex trade, should we be treating this as a situation where punishment should be handed out evenly?

The reality is, that on the streets, online and in the brothels across the country, it's the pimps who get most of the money.

The so-called "Johns" or clients pay for the sex they want, and the abuse they sometimes want to dole out.

It is the women who suffer most of the pain, the abuse, the diseases — and often the deaths.

'Workplace homicides'

Just how dangerous is the sex trade for women?

A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that the "workplace homicide rate for prostitutes" was 50 times greater than the next most perilous situation for women, working in a liquor store.

An often emotional debate. Protesters, demanding stronger laws against pimps and Johns, rally in front of the Supreme Court building in June 2013 during the arguments on the constitutionality of Canada's prostitution laws. (Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

"Women engaged in prostitution face the most dangerous occupational environment in the United States," the study bluntly noted, while adding those shocking mortality rates were "similar" in Canada. 

The men, meanwhile, go largely unpunished.

Prostitution's most vulnerable victims are the thousands of young girls forced onto the street, yet Canada's record on cracking down on the men guilty of abusing minors by paying for sex or selling it is abysmal.

During the eight years from 2005 to 2012, an average of fewer than 10 men per year were charged with "living off the avails" of minors, and an average of only 25 men per year were charged with purchasing sex from a minor.

So either we have the best-behaved men on the planet — or we are seriously neglecting the protection of some of the most vulnerable women and girls in our society.

The Nordic model

In Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark they criminalize the pimps and clients of prostituted women, not the women themselves.

In those countries, women prostitutes are seen as victims deserving of medical and other services, a way out if they want it. No moralizing or judging. Police can't arrest them; they have to help them.

Of course, the so-called Nordic model has its critics. But at least it offers a clear choice: victims or criminals.

It's an either/or option — you can't treat prostituted women as both.

In Canada's case, however, Justice Minister Peter MacKay stopped short of making that stark choice.

Even the awkward name of his proposed law — the "Protection of communities and exploited persons act" — reveals what many critics and activists see as the government's ham-fisted attempt to have it both ways.

Communities first, then women and girls. As if protecting exploited women and children is not the best way to protect our communities.

You have to wonder if the "law and order" Conservatives, as they are often called, felt they could not be seen to be helping prostituted women above all else.

So while the new law does put a welcome emphasis on punishing the men who profit from the sex trade, the Harper government apparently could not stop itself from lumping in those guilty, sinful women as well.

A new approach

A woman forced into the prostitution trade could be charged if she was caught "advertising the sale of sexual services in print media or on the internet."

And a woman could be jailed if she was caught "communicating for the purpose of selling sexual services in public places where a child could reasonably be expected to be present" — which could be almost anywhere in Canada.

"The continued criminalization of prostituted women — that's my concern," says Bridget Perrier, the co-founder of SexTrade101.com, an anti-trafficking group.

She applauds the bill's tougher stand towards pimps and johns, but still feels it goes only "three-quarters of the way there" when it comes to protecting women.

At the Commons hearings, she read a powerful letter from her stepdaughter, whose mother was one of the six women Robert Pickton was convicted of killing in 2007.

A woman holds a red umbrella, a symbol for sex workers rights, during a rally in Toronto in December 2013 as the Supreme Court struck down Canada's prostitution laws in a unanimous 9-0 ruling. (Mark Blinch / Canadian Press)

Front-line organizations tackling prostitution in Canada are sharply divided between abolitionists like Perrier, who want to wipe out prostitution as inherently oppressive, and those who want more rights for sex workers.

But nearly every one of the dozens of witnesses who have already appeared before the Commons committee highlighted this fundamental flaw of treating women as criminals — a flaw that exposes MacKay's proposed new law to yet another Supreme Court challenge.

When the Supreme Court struck down the country's prostitution laws last December, it in effect wiped the slate clean.

It was a chance to erase decades-old traditions and oppressive stereotypes towards women by fashioning a 21st-century approach.

Today, the federal justice committee begins a clause-by-clause study of the Conservative government's proposed new prostitution law, but after days of often emotional hearings last week the flaws of the bill are becoming more and more apparent.

MacKay says he is open to amendments on his proposed law, and Perrier, for one, wants to hold him to that.

"We have been assured by the minister that he is willing to make some changes, he knows what our concerns are," she said.

"Men have been acting badly for a long time. We need to put the burden on them."


Julian Sher

the fifth estate

Julian Sher is the senior producer of CBC TV's investigative program The Fifth Estate. He is also the author of Somebody's Daughter: The hidden story of America's prostituted children and the battle to save them. @juliansher julian.sher@cbc.ca


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?