Sign: Decriminalize Sex Work
A June 14 rally, as part of a national day of action, in Toronto.

Credit: Sadiya Ansari

TORONTO (WOMENSENEWS)–Those who want to abolish prostitution and those who want to decriminalize it are far apart in many key ways.

When it comes to the Conservative government’s prostitution bill however, tabled earlier this month, both sides agree it’s not what they are looking for.

While both sides want to do more to protect prostitutes, abolitionists view prostitution as inherently exploitative and want pimps and johns to be criminalized. Those seeking full decriminalization argue sex work is a choice and criminalizing pimps and johns exposes sex workers to the same harms as being criminalized themselves.

“Every piece of that law can and will be used against sex workers,” said Anna-Louise Crago, a former sex worker who advocates for decriminalization and studies sex work at the Montreal-based Trudeau Foundation, named after the late Canadian prime minister.

Michèle Audette, president of Ottawa-based Native Women’s Association of Canada, shares the government’s abolitionist view that prostitution is exploitation. But like Crago, she worries that certain provisions in the bill could punish the most vulnerable workers, particularly Aboriginal women who are overrepresented in the sex trade.

“This legislation will impact a huge number of vulnerable people who never chose to be on the street,” said Audette. Threats of criminalization that the bill hangs over those who work outdoors will only push these women further to the margins into a ‘darker market’,” she said. Audette added that these women will not qualify to work indoors in brothels because of issues related to poverty, addiction and health status.

Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, was drafted in response to a December Supreme Court decision that struck down the existing prostitution law for violating sex workers’ constitutional right to security, in this case meaning a safe work environment.

That targeted law prohibited operating a brothel, living off the income from prostitution and street communication.

The proposed bill allows brothels and certain individuals to live off the income from prostitution, for instance partners of sex workers, security services or accountants, i.e. those that do not play a direct hand in “exploitation.”

Following Nordic Model

In some ways the bill follows the so-called Nordic model, which takes the position that all prostitution is violence against women and targets the demand side by criminalizing pimps and johns while decriminalizing sex workers themselves.

While the bill does focus on prostitutes as victims–an abolitionist position that many sex workers strenuously oppose–and commits funds to help women exit prostitution, Audette said the government has not gone far enough to address problems such as a lack of income, lack of housing and history of sexual abuse that often pushes women into prostitution.

The government has pledged to provide $20 million in funding over five years to grassroots organizations to help sex workers exit the trade.

Parts of the bill do diverge from the Nordic model though in ways that both sides of this debate criticize. The bill, for instance, prohibits advertising sexual services of others in print or online. So while a sex worker is allowed to self-advertise, others are not allowed to help publicize his or her services.

It also reintroduces limitations on communication by forbidding prostitution-related communication in public places where a child could be expected to be present.

Amy Lebovitch, a sex worker, is one of the three women who brought forward the legal challenge. For 17 years she has worked indoors and outdoors and seeks to decriminalize and regulate her trade to make it safer. She said she opposes the bill’s prohibition on public communication.

“The Supreme Court was very clear that the communication law was very dangerous for sex workers who are working outdoors,” said Lebovitch.

Criminalizing clients and criminalizing certain aspects of communication means sex workers cannot screen clients, for instance, before getting into a car. The prohibition on public communication, she said, ends up criminalizing people working outdoors; the most marginalized people in the industry and the very group the government says it aims to protect.

Other Concerns

Lebovitch also takes issue with the bill’s prohibition of helping a sex worker advertise. One sex worker, she said, could be criminalized for helping a friend post an ad online.

If convicted of communicating for the purpose of prostitution, a sex worker could find herself in jail for up to six months.

Lebovitch said she had been prepared for a version of the bill that adhered more closely to the Nordic model since Justice Minister Peter MacKay had hinted at that in advance of unveiling the bill.

On June 14 many who share Lebovitch’s views joined a national day of action across Canada, including rallies in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, denouncing the bill and calling for more complete decriminalization.

The bill must undergo two more readings before it becomes law. The Supreme Court has given the federal government until December 2014 to have new legislation in place. The government’s online form for public comment while the bill was being drafted attracted 30,000 responses.

The Women’s Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution, a pan-Canada group, represents seven organizations across the country that advocated for the Nordic model. In a June 4 statement the group applauded the government’s efforts to criminalize johns and pimps but expressed disappointment over other elements.

Jean McDonald is executive director of Maggie’s, a Toronto-based sex worker support group. She described the proposed $20 million over five years as insignificant in such a large country. “If people want to address survival sex work, they should focus on improving social supports, including increasing rates for welfare, increasing the minimum wage and having more supportive and welcoming programs for sex workers that aren’t contingent on leaving the trade,” she said.

McDonald said such programs could include learning a new trade, but ultimately sex workers should be able to choose whether they want to find other work.

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