Sex work: how it's controlled around the world

The legal status of prostitution varies from country to country. It's legal to trade sex for money in Canada, for example, but there are limitations on how and where such a transaction can take place. View an interactive map of prostitution laws around the world.
A woman solicits the driver of a passing car near 118 Avenue in Edmonton, an area frequented by sex workers and their clients. Several prostitutes disappeared from the area in the 1990s and 2000s, and many of the cases have never been solved. Some advocates say decriminalizing prostitution makes the profession safer for women. (Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

The legal status of prostitution varies from country to country, ranging from completely legal to a criminal offence with stiff sentences. In Canada, it's legal to trade sex for money, but there are limitations on how and where such a transaction can take place.

Prostitution in Canada is governed mainly by three provisions of the Criminal Code:

  • Section 210: which prohibits the keeping or frequenting of a bawdy house. (Another provision, Section 211, makes it an offence to transport or direct someone to a bawdy house.)
  • Section 212: which makes it a crime to live on the avails of prostitution or to procure a prostitute for another person.
  • Section 213: which forbids an individual from communicating with any person in a public place for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or of obtaining the sexual services of a prostitute.

Two recent court cases have attempted to challenge some of these provisions on constitutional grounds.

In Ontario, the Court of Appeal on March 26, 2012, upheld most of a Sept. 28, 2010, ruling by the Ontario Superior Court that deemed parts of the Criminal Code provisions on prostitution unconstitutional. The Superior Court said in its original decision that the provisions force sex trade workers to have to choose between their liberty and their safety, thus violating their rights to liberty and security of person under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The federal and Ontario governments appealed that ruling.

Dominatrix Terri-Jean Bedford, one of three sex workers who challenged Canada's prostitution laws and won a ruling from the Ontario Court of Appeal that deemed two of the three main Criminal Code provisions governing prostitution unconstitutional. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press)

The appeal court agreed with the lower court that sections 210 and 212 violated sex workers' Charter rights but said Section 213 did not. It gave the government 12 months to come up with a new law governing bawdy houses that would not violate constitutional rights. If it did not, bawdy houses would be considered legal, meaning sex workers could practice their profession indoors without fear of prosecution. 

Living on the avails of prostitution will no longer be considered illegal starting within 30 days of the ruling — with the exception of those who live on the avails of prostitution "in circumstances of exploitation," meaning that pimps who exploit prostitutes would still be violating the law but drivers, personal assistants and other workers hired by prostitutes to aid them in their profession would not.

Two out of the five Court of Appeal judges disagreed with the majority opinion on Section 213 and felt the ban on solicitation in public places, too, should have been deemed unconstitutional.

The original challenge of the Criminal Code provisions was launched by three Ontario sex trade workers, Terri-Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch, who argued that the laws force them to work in the streets rather than in the safety of their own homes, thus violating their right to liberty and security of person. Their case related only to the Criminal Code provisions having to do with running a bawdy house, living on the avails of prostitution and communicating in public for the purposes of engaging in prostitution or obtaining the services of a prostitute. It did not challenge the part of Sec. 212 having to do with the procuring of prostitutes for another person.

A similar constitutional challenge was launched by a group of sex workers in B.C. in 2007, but the federal government has been trying to keep the courts from even considering that challenge, arguing that the case doesn't warrant public interest standing. The Supreme Court of Canada heard arguments from both sides in January 2012 and is to decide whether the challenge can proceed in the coming months.

For an overview of prostitution laws around the world, see:

Click on a country's flag on the map below to read more about how that nation regulates prostitution: