Prostitution laws: Europeans debate whether criminalization or legalization works better

As Supreme Court judges prepared for today's landmark decision that struck down Canada’s prostitution laws, they would have found a wide range of European models — from the Nordic model of criminalizing johns to Germany’s outright legalization.

Swedish model of criminalizing prostitutes' clients may prevail over Germany's legalization

People demonstrate against prostitution outside the French parliament in Paris on Dec. 4. On the same day, France’s lower house of parliament voted for tougher prostitution laws, making it a crime to pay for sex. (Francois Mori/Associated Press)

As Supreme Court judges prepared for today's landmark decision on Canada’s prostitution laws, they would have found a wide range of models being hotly debated in Europe — from the Nordic model of criminalizing johns to Germany’s outright legalization.

The Supreme Court struck down Canada’s prostitution laws on Friday morning, ruling that they violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Criminal Code provisions will stay in force for one year to give Parliament time to come back with new laws.

The judgment will be scrutinized in Canada, but it is also likely be watched closely abroad, especially in other countries that are confronting their own challenges with what is often called the world’s oldest profession.

France to crack down on prostitutes' clients

Earlier in December, amid bitter public debate, France’s lower house of parliament voted to make it a crime to pay for sex, in effect punishing the johns instead of the prostitutes.

These sex workers, protesting in November, oppose France's plan to penalize clients caught in the act of soliciting a prostitute. The board reads: 'Repression is not prevention.' (Christophe Ena/Associated Press)

After the vote, the minister for women, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said the new law would aid in the fight against pimping and human trafficking.

“I thank you for looking at prostitution as it is and not as we dream it of being,” she told fellow lawmakers after the vote. “Thank you for giving us the means to effectively fight against the networks that control the sex trade.”

The new law means that anyone caught paying for sexual services will face a fine of 1,500 euros ($2,200) increasing to 3,750 euros (about $5,500) for repeat offenders.

Why Swedes believe they got it right

France was following the lead set by Sweden in 1999 in an effort to abolish prostitution.

Kajsa​ Wahlberg, Swedish National Police detective-superintendent, said the law’s moral underpinning is based on promoting gender equality and ending violence against women. In that context, buying sex is seen as victimizing prostitutes.

The trade has not disappeared in Sweden since the law was introduced, said Wahlberg, but street soliciting is down significantly.

“It does not solve every problem, but it does have a deterrent effect on many people and most of the people in the society want to stay on the right side of the law,” she said.

A prostitute poses inside one of Germany's largest brothels, the Artemis in Berlin. Germany decriminalized prostitution in 2002. Lawmakers are now reconsidering after a massive boom in the number of sex workers, many of them virtually sex slaves from poorer countries. (Franka Bruns/Associated Press)

From those who know Sweden’s sex trade from the inside, there is a very different view.

Pye Jakobsson was a prostitute in Sweden for 24 years and now works to better the lives of those still in the trade through the organization Rose Alliance. Jakobsson said she is hoping Canada’s Supreme Court will strike down the prostitution laws.

She also urged Canada not to follow Sweden’s example, arguing it has driven sex workers deeper into the shadows, making a risky line of work even more dangerous.

“Criminalizing sex work and things around sex work is not the solution. It makes us more marginalized and vulnerable,” Jakobsson said.

She said only the “bad” johns are willing to risk arrest by buying sex on street corners.

Germany's sex trade booms after legalization

Jakobsson points to Germany as an example of how to do it right.

Since 2002, prostitution there has been treated as a legal industry — allowing sex workers to get social insurance and to sue customers who don’t pay.

It has resulted in booming business. There are tens of thousands of prostitutes working in Germany, perhaps upwards of 200,000 in total. 

Chantal Louis, editor of the German feminist magazine Emma, said that there is a downside: Germany has become a lucrative market for pimps and people traffickers. 

“Many of the women working here come from the poorest countries in Europe: Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary,” Louis said.

“We have laws against pimping and trafficking but it is difficult for the police to prove a case because you need the testimony of the victim. And that is not easy to get from these vulnerable women.”

In fact, the newly elected German government is looking at revising the law to make it illegal to buy sex from women who have been forced into prostitution.

Louis said that is only a “symbolic gesture” that falls far short of what is needed: an outright ban on prostitution.

Wahlberg agrees trafficking has grown in Germany over the last decade.

She believes the sheer number of countries following Sweden’s example suggest it has found the best alternative.

The list includes Finland, Norway and Iceland.

Ireland is considering new laws as well and Wahlberg says she’ll be meeting with a delegation from Australia in the new year.

Wahlberg said she has not had any inquiries from anyone in the Canadian government.


Laura Lynch


CBC Radio correspondent Laura Lynch has reported from many parts of the world, most recently Europe and the Middle East. She has also worked as the CBC's Washington correspondent and as a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. She is based in Vancouver.