Bringing Prostitution Out of the Shadows

The New Zealand Model Could Benefit Canada

Graphic Ekavi Beh

The decriminalization of prostitution is a touchy subject, with people on both sides of the argument claiming to be fighting for the safety of those working in the trade.

Prostitution has never been illegal in Canada, but certain laws—specifically, the laws against bawdy houses, street solicitation and living off the avails of prostitution—made it difficult to practice in a way that was legal and safe at the same time.

Under the laws, sex workers were unable to hire drivers, bodyguards and secretaries or even support their spouse on income made through prostitution.

These three laws were struck down unanimously in the Supreme Court of Canada in December 2013, giving the court one year to create new legislation surrounding the practice.

During this time, the laws are still in place in the Criminal Code, but the floor has been opened to discussion about the future of sex work in Canada. Many models of legislation have been suggested, including those currently in place in Norway and New Zealand.

Under the Nordic model, johns and pimps would be criminalized while sex workers themselves would be decriminalized. The aim of this model is to decrease the demand for prostitution while protecting the workers.

The New Zealand model, however, legalizes sex work for all parties, and allows brothels, street solicitation and living off the proceeds of someone else’s prostitution. It does not discourage prostitution, but instead allows it to become a regulated industry.

Last week, Concordia was host to a panel debate on this subject as part of the CSU’s Gender Month. One of the panellists, Terri-Jean Bedford, is a dominatrix who was one of the plaintiffs fighting against the laws that were stricken.

“I favour a Canadian model, where the laws struck down are not replaced, and the other laws still on the books which can be used to protect women are used more,” she said in an email to The Link.

“I believe it is wrong to tell consenting adults what they can and cannot do in private for money.”

Bedford explained that laws should not be formed on a moral basis, but rather on one of safety. With the decriminalization of all participants involved in the selling of sex, workers would not have to fear persecution of themselves or their clients, and a true open discussion could begin.

The regulation of the industry would help bring it out of the shadows; illegal acts such as trafficking, abuse, assault and the involvement of minors would have fewer places to hide.

“We can’t fight violence if we don’t have rights.”
—Robyn Maynard, street-based outreach employee at Stella

“We can’t fight violence if we don’t have rights,” said Robyn Maynard at last week’s discussion.

Maynard, who was one of the panellists, works with Stella, a Montreal-based community organization that provides support for sex workers and advocates for the decriminalization of sex work.

Maynard went on to argue that sex workers need to be at the centre of the discussion, and that achieving a society free of gender inequality at the sacrifice of the safety of workers is not fair. Those who choose prostitution are punished by legislation that criminalizes their clients, making a working relationship more difficult, especially if clients are unwilling to sacrifice their identities. As a result, if a worker is assaulted it becomes that much more difficult to find the guilty party.

Prostitution is a contentious subject, and it can be hard to discuss it without tempers flaring. What should ultimately be of greatest importance is keeping the individuals who engage in prostitution—both those who pay and are paid for it—as safe as possible, which can be done by allowing people to live off of the profits they make through the sex trade, as well as developing legislation that fully respects the rights of workers to engage in whatever consensual acts they choose to.

The New Zealand model maintains the illegal status of prostitution for those under the age of 18, and works to promote the health of sex workers. It’s no wonder that a 2005 report by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network called the New Zealand model a “much more respectful” model than Norway’s, and stated that it “[respects the] autonomy, dignity and human rights of sex workers.”

This is not to say that introducing similar legislation to that which exists in New Zealand would automatically erase the stigma and judgment faced by sex workers—creating a more tolerant society that respects the desires of adults to participate in consensual sexual acts will take a lot more than a few laws.

That being said, legislation affirming that what these individuals are doing is not wrong is an important step to take, and a necessary one if things will ever move forward.