Harper’s proposed sex-work laws are killer

Criminalizing prostitution will push it underground, endangering the very people that our government is pretending to give a shit about.


“Nordic Model” might make you think of exercise machines sold in late-night infomercials — or of blonde, six-foot-tall mannequins — but it’s actually the term used to describe an approach to prostitution that was pioneered by Sweden in 1998.

Yesterday, the Harper government proposed its own variation on the Swedish laws, basically criminalizing the sale or purchase of sex for the first time in Canadian history.

It’s an ironic result of a campaign by some sex worker advocates to strike down current legislation, which the Supreme Court agreed in December was endangering the lives of prostitutes. That victory has been short-lived, with justice minister Peter MacKay introducing legislation yesterday that many say will actually increase the danger for women and men engaged in prostitution.

The MacKay Model would make it illegal to buy sexual services, to sell sex in any public place where minors might be present — let’s just call that everywhere except in bars, where other laws will apply — and to advertise such services. So in one fell swoop, the federal government will drive street prostitution into back alleys and escort services into the shadows.

It’s hard to understand how this will make life safer for prostitutes. It’s a little like arguing that prohibition made life safer for bartenders, distillers and consumers when we know the opposite was true. By pushing prostitution further underground, we significantly increase the risk to the lives and health of sex workers.

As if the danger wasn’t already bad enough.

“This is in fact full criminalization of prostitution … which is going to result in sex workers going to jail,” lawyer Katrina Pacey told CBC. “The minister has found various ways to limit all of the safe ways for sex-trade work.”

MacKay says “the bill recognizes that the vast majority of those who sell sexual services do not do so by choice. We view the vast majority of those involved in selling sexual services as victims.”

This coming from the same government that has refused to convoke an inquiry into the disappearance and murder of more than 1,200 aboriginal women in the last 30 years, most of whom are the very victims that MacKay pretends he wants to help.


The Supreme Court ruling was a turning point, but because it occurred while the Harper government was in office, it seems to be shaping up to be a turn for the worse.

All this was sadly predictable, with the Conservative government doing little to hide its preference for the moralistic, repressive approach favoured by religious groups and the right.

What is the alternative? For groups like the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the protection of prostitutes and the reintegration and rehabilitation of sex workers is much more effectively accomplished through the New Zealand model, which recognized prostitution as a legal activity and created regulations to govern its practice.

A follow-up study on the 2003 New Zealand law, headed by a former police commissioner, found that both the working conditions and safety of sex workers had improved, while the religious right’s predictions of a boom in the sex trade failed to materialize.

In Sweden, on the other hand, a 2004 ministry of justice report found that although there were fewer sex-work clients under the Nordic Model, the remaining johns were much more dangerous.  And the need for discretion meant sex-workers took less time to evaluate the potential risks, while the price of sexual services dropped.

In other words, the victims of prostitution were even further victimized.


Prostitution is a complex issue that can’t be broken down into stereotypes of high-end escorts, Bunny Ranch brothel workers, human traffic or drugged-out street workers. Certainly, many prostitutes were victims long before they ever traded sex for cash: of sexual, physical and emotional abuse, of drug and alcohol use, of economic desperation or emotional coercion.

The one and only thing they have in common is that they work in an industry for which demand has been a constant throughout history. And demand is the one thing that is unlikely to change regardless of the legislative model-of-the-day.

Laws based on repression merely drive the sex trade underground and make it easier to victimize sex workers. Laws that make it legal and open allow sex workers to seek the same rights as any other workers, including the right to work in a safe environment. That’s the reason why the Supreme Court invalidated current Canadian laws and why the Harper government knows full well that the MacKay Model won’t survive the next, inevitable round of legal challenges.

So why are they proposing a law that’s likely to be struck down? It’s hard to ascribe it to anything but arrogance, the same arrogance that has led the Conservatives to push forward an agenda that often flies in the face of established rules and rights, one that has led to five recent losses in front of the Supreme Court.

For a party that prides itself on a law-and-order agenda, it doesn’t seem to have much respect for either the law or basic human rights.

So it’s a little much to expect them to respect the people they are purporting to protect, the victims of prostitution. Instead, they’ve once more turned them into targets. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.