Prostitution Laws: What’s After Decriminalization

Concordia-hosted Panel Debates New Sex Work Legal Models

Sarah Meghan Mah and Stan Burditt spoke at Decriminalization of Prostitution in Canada: Now What? at Saidye Bronfmann Hall on Tuesday. Photo Michael Wrobel

In a major decision made last year, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously struck down three prostitution laws on street solicitation, brothels and living off the avails of prostitution.

Discussions—like Tuesday’s Decriminalization of Prostitution in Canada: What now? at Concordia’s Bronfman House—are now focused on how to rewrite these laws and regulate the industry to make it safer for sex workers.

“The fact that it was unanimous [in the Supreme Court] that these laws put sex workers’ lives at risk is something that we think we have to take very seriously,” said panellist Robyn Maynard, outreach coordinator and activist currently working at Montreal sex workers’ rights organization Stella.

“In all the work we’ve been doing to combat violence against sex workers, the laws have been a detriment to people’s ability to defend themselves.”

Panellists explored the question of what regulatory model Canada should adopt. They also discussed whether prostitution and the act of purchasing sex should be decriminalized entirely or if decriminalization should apply only to workers.

Arguing in favour of the Nordic model of law—which aims to protect workers while still discouraging and criminalizing prostitution—were Sarah Meghan Mah, a rape crisis centre and transition house worker and member of the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, and Stan Burditt, founder of Men Against Sexual Trafficking and member of the executive for the London and Area Anti-Trafficking Committee.

“The Nordic model of law offers some effective means of impeding pimps and brothel-keepers from operating with impunity and profiting so easily,” said Mah.

Robyn Maynard and Terri Jean Bedford at the event. Photo Michael Wrobel.

“It recognizes that prostitution is a sexist practice where men take advantage of the systemic disadvantage that women live in, [including] poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of education, training opportunities, lack of trustworthy childcare and lack of opportunity altogether.”

On the other side of the debate—arguing for New Zealand’s model and a uniquely Canadian model respectively—were Robyn Maynard and Terri Jean Bedford, a dominatrix and author who has been challenging Canada’s prostitution laws for 20 years.

“The laws criminalizing the sex trade actually put marginalized groups at more risk of violence and this is something that is pretty indisputable if you look at the evidence at this point,” said Maynard.

“It’s also just our position to remind people that human trafficking and kidnapping and profiting from minors in the sex trade, coercion and sexual assault are already, and will remain, abuses and illegal under the Criminal Code.”

All panellists agreed that the safety of sex workers was the most important issue, and that the striking of the laws by the Supreme Court last year was a positive decision.

The federal government is seeking public input on this issue until March 17; comments can be submitted online here or emailed to