Prostitution in Canada

Initial Essay


This is going to be a more serious post that usual. The subject is prostitution in Canada, so I hope I don't offend anyone too much.

Traditionally, prostitution refers to a man paying a woman to mate with him. I assume the term has being extended to apply if the roles are reversed and to analogous homosexual relationships. I also suspect that, for practical reasons, it still counts as prostitution of you actually spend the time playing video games, discussing theology, or similar. And as you have probably noticed, I am a great believer of defining terms.

You may also come across the term "human trafficking" (or just "trafficking"), which just means slavery (apparently there is fear that calling it slavery would make people think it is legal). Most of this is sex trafficking, which basically means slave prostitutes.

For a long time (I don't know when it started), Canada has had a generally-nonsensical law on the issue: prostitution itself was legal, but almost anything else related - such as admitting to being a prostitute - was not. Recently the Canadian Supreme Court overturned this and legalized the lot of it. However, they also gave the government a year to come up with a new law if they want to. Given my tendency to assume that law courts have unofficial policy against giving rulings on social issue that actually make sense, this came as a pleasant surprise.They have replaced something weird with something understandable, and they are willing to defer to our elected government. Both good things.

I semi-recently found out about a group called Hope for the Sold (it started as a couple with a blog, but I think it has sort of grown) that is trying to raise awareness about prostitution. They gather and spread information and eventually hope to get Canada to adopt laws on prostitution like those in Sweden (adopted in Norway, Iceland, and now France). There is also a group active in Regina (where I live) specifically called Freedom Catalyst Regina.

The Situation:

  1. Summary: It's even worse than you thought.
  2. A More Detailed Explanation: If you had asked me a year ago, I would have guessed (from a few anecdotes) that most prostitutes were drug addicts in their teens and 20s who sold themselves to support their habits. The men who bought (hired?) them were those who didn't approve of chasity and lacked the social skills for seduction. It was a thoroughly unsavory branch of society and I wanted nothing to do with it. It turns out that most prostitutes are essentially slaves (isolated, no money, threats against them and their families if they try to escape, etc.) and the men who hire them (called johns or tricks for some reason) are more interested in power/dominance that sex. For anyone who has read (and remembers) C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters (at least I think it was that book), we are far into "infernal Venus" territory here.
  3. Some statistics (from which provides the sources they got them from):

The Swedish Model:


Sweden's laws have now been in effect for about 15 years, including a big 2008 survey, so we can look at the results:
  1. Prostitution rates have fallen significantly (although not to zero). This is despite the fact that they have been rising the rest of Europe (data 2008 before any other countries adopted similar laws).
  2. There is a vocal group of critics who argue that prostitution has just moved farther underground and presumably the prostitutes are now even worse off. They are having trouble finding evidence for this, although several presumably-big-name people to say that they believe it.
In contrast, the Netherlands and Germany legalized everything in 2000 and 2002 respectively. The theory was that legalization would destroy the black market and the government could enforce good "working" conditions through regulations. The results:


I support the Swedish model. It seems like the sort of thing that would make this country a better place. As with every change, there would be winners and losers, but I think there would be more winners and they would be winning by more. As good people, we need to look out for everyone, not just ourselves. "Any man's death diminishes me,/Because I am involved in mankind" ~ Meditation XVI, John Donne

Miscellaneous Notes and Thoughts:

  1. I don't think I would approve of prostitution even if it was entirely safe and no one was hurt. In my experience, women are extremely complex creatures and treating one as no more than an apparatus for physical pleasure seems improper. I think this is what is called objectification, although there is probably some form of the great chain of being lurking in there.
  2. Prostitutes are commonly referred to as being sold. However, as they are returned to their previous owner after the event, "rented" seems more accurate.
  3. I don't have any (biological) sisters or daughters. However, I do have an honorary sister and niece (not related to each other). I would be quite horrified if anything like what is described in here happened to either of them. This leaves me more able to empathize with these unfortunate women who I don't know.
  4. The line of what counts as prostitution is very fuzzy. A modern, women who winds up sleeping with some man she has never met before every night is merely liberated (although I am not clear on exactly what from). If the relationship is at least semi-permanent, they are lovers. If her mate is married to someone else, she is a mistress. If the relationship has formal recognition, she is a concubine, and he probably has some sort of responsibilities to her (such as not dumping her when she gets older). If the relationship has full legal status, it is called marriage, she becomes a wife, and most of the same people who condemn prostitution say its a good thing.
  5. For Christians reading this: The Bible appears to treat "secular" prostitution (as opposed to religious prostitution in the service of some goddess) as less objectionable - at least for the woman - than the same relationship would have been if no money had changed hands. The justification seems to be that "this is how I make a living" is a quasi-valid excuse. See Ezekiel 16:30-34, Hosea 4:14, and possibly Amos 7:14-17. I am not entirely sure how this fits with my main point. My argument here is a pragmatic one from exploitation, so I suspect that it is irrelevant. However, a case could be made that a society that not merely accepts, but actually celebrates fornication has no right for forbid prostitution. Otherwise-acceptable actions do not normally become forbidden when done in exchange for money.
  6. There is a hilarious proposal for introducing religious prostitution into Christianity at…/temple-prostitution-a-modest-prop…/. It was intended to mock the justifications given for accepting gay marriage by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (it uses all the same arguments), but is well worth reading in its own right.
  7. Despite some "Get Involved" suggestions, I believe the Canadian government does not actually accept online petitions. I hear they are thinking of changing this sometime soon, but it has not happened yet. This means that, even if you feel strongly about the issue, signing online petitions is a waste of time.

First Follow-Up


There is a activist group called Hope for the Sold that has made a documentary on the issue called Red Light Green Light. They are doing a Parliamentary screening (I assume this means they show their film to the government) on April 9th.

If you are concerned about the issue, please contact your MP and ask them to watch it. There is a form letter and email addresses for MPs (you need to know your postal code).

Second Follow-Up


The Canadian government now has a bill in Parliament proposing laws based on the Swedish Model. That is the approach where being a prostitute is legal but hiring or employing one is not. This has been found (empirically) to be the most effective way to reduce sexual exploitation.

The current text of the bill is available at…, but it is rather hard to read. As a side note, government bills look rather like Gitorious patches from collaborative computer programming. There is room here for someone to write a nice graphical diff program. Ideally, it would show the two versions of the law side by side with colored highlighting for the changes.

Third Follow-Up


As of 4 days ago (November 4, 2014) both houses of Parliament have passed Bill C-36, which is Canada's new prostitution law. It does not become official law until it receives Royal Assent, but that is a formality. The Governor-General has never withheld Royal Assent in the history of Canada (the British Empire last used it in 1707) and it would probably be unconstitutional as well (we would need lawyers to know for sure).

The law basically follows the Nordic/Swedish Model (both terms seem to be in use), which means that it will occupy a weird legal limbo, designed to produces certain effects in society. I believe this is similar to the status of loan sharking (charging very high interest rates to people who desperately need the money) and marijuana.

  1. Being a prostitute will be decriminalized, which means that it is not legal but not so illegal you can get in legal trouble for it. However, it would be fully illegal “next to a school, playground, or daycare centre.”
  2. Hiring a prostitute will be illegal.
  3. Being a pimp would be illegal.
  4. Running adds for prostitution would be illegal for the organization that display the add (e.g. a newspaper), but not for the person who posted it (i.e. the prostitute). This includes online advertising.
  5. Ponography is not affected, and is still legal. Which makes sense as it is a different issue, but some people think they should be grouped together.
The government will also give $20M for programs to help women leave prostitution and review the law in 5 years based on what it did.

The societal changes they seem to be trying for are:
  1. Have prostitutes viewed as victims.
  2. Change the common social perception of prostitution to be an issue of exploitation, rather than an issue of personal freedom. Society at present is divided on this and will presumably remain so, but they are trying to change the distribution.
  3. Reduce the number of prostitutes.
  4. Make men feel bad about hiring prostitutes.
This approach has probably worked (as in it has achieved the goals I stated) in Sweden, which is the only country that has had such laws for an extended time period. However, it is hard to be sure because everyone involved a) has strong prior opinions, and b) it is very hard to measure secret, illegal activity.

As I see it, the law now has only one major challenge remaining. Soon after it is passed, there will inevitably be a legal challenge about whether it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It doesn't by my reading, but our legal system might think otherwise. The possible challenges I see are:
  1. The weird combination of illegal and decriminalized stuff constitutes entrapment. For those of you who don't know, entrapment means trying to get someone to do something illegal. In this case, the prostitutes are encouraging law-breaking among those who run their adds or hire their services. I don't think this will be a problem, as the same situation exists for the loan sharks and marijuana smokers I mentioned above.
  2. This drive the prostitution industry underground. Which, given that it is already underground, probably means not allow it to come out into the open. This will deny prostitutes the legal protections they would enjoy under full legalization, and thus will make them worse off. I also don't think this one will work, as most of the evidence says the opposite.
  3. Maximizing individual freedom trumps (or should trump) all other considerations. To the best of my knowledge, this principle does not appear in any law anywhere (and no one would want it to), but it gets invoked all the same. I would guess (given my normal and semi-partisan cynicism) that this might be enough to overturn the new law, although I hope not.

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