As the Ontario Court of Appeal considers whether to uphold or overturn the Ontario Superior Court's decision last year that Canada's anti-prostitution laws should be struck down, let us at least try to debate the issue based on evidence and not moralizing.
First, it is important to note that prostitution per se is not illegal. Instead, the law prohibits the key activities related to prostitution:
Making these things illegal does not stop prostitution from taking place, but merely drives it underground. It prevents any legal and regulatory protection of workers, and it and connects prostitution with the drug trade and other organized crime activities - since the only people willing to get involved in it are people who don't mind the fact that it's illegal.
Because of the ban on 'bawdy houses', prostitutes are not allowed to cooperate and protect each other or to work in a controlled environment.
Because the ban on profiting indirectly (meant to deter pimps), prostitutes are not allowed to hire bodyguards or other protection.
Because of the ban on communicating, prostitutes are forced to solicit on side streets, away from police or anyone else who might be able to watch over them and keep them safe.
In short: our anti-prostitution laws absolutely fail to protect prostitutes from exploitation.
The Netherlands legalized brothels and pimping in 2000, and it's an important case study in what happens when laws are made based on pragmatism rather than moralizing.
The worst you can say about it is that it hasn't made things any worse than they were when prostitution was illegal, and some things seem to have gotten better.
The overall number of prostitutes has remained roughly the same since before it was legalized - around 25,000 sex workers. In other words, legalizing prostitution did not make it a more appealing career choice.
Most prostitutes are immigrants from Eastern Europe, but that was true before prostitution was legalized. Overall, the proportion of prostitutes from foreign countries has fallen slightly since 1997, from around 70% to around 60%.
One thing that has changed for the better is that most prostitutes now work out of brothels or sex clubs rather than on the streets. This allows for a safer, more regulated working environment, including regular medical checkups for sexually transmitted infections. There are still a small number of street prostitutes, but even their work environments are new regulated and monitored for safety.
Brothels and prostitutes are licenced, brothels have to obey municipal by-laws, and prostitution is regulated under normal labour law, so there is now a legal avenue for prostitutes to advocate for better working conditions.
There are a number of occupations in which the workers tend to be paid and treated poorly, but as one Netherlands-based human rights advocate put it, "We know, for instance, that there is exploitation in the textile industry but we don't scream 'Stop buying clothing' - we talk about labour rights and working conditions."
Human trafficking remains a serious problem in the Netherlands sex trade, but again it was taking place before legalization and there was less recourse then to distinguish sex slaves from voluntary prostitutes.
Dutch lawmakers are attempting to draw a sharper distinction between legal prostitution - "full consent to exploitation of the self" - and coerced prostitution, which remains illegal for the person doing the exploiting and indeed carries stronger penalties than before.
Advocates argue that the Dutch authorities are not doing enough to protect the rights of sex workers, but it's clear that the solution is not to make voluntary sex work illegal - any more than the solution to poor working conditions in textile plants is to make sewing illegal.
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