Policy

Prostitution Policy Must Be Evidence-Based

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 15, 2011

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.

Lessons from the Netherlands

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted June 15, 2011 at 11:08:18

Considering the conservative's past opinions of evidence-based policy... no, this won't happen if the federal government gets involved.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 15, 2011 at 11:33:26 in reply to Comment 64888

The matter is before the courts, not the lawmakers. If the Superior Court decision is upheld, Canada's anti-prostitution laws will be struck down.

Edit - corrected as per this comment

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2011-06-15 13:03:34

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By zot (anonymous) | Posted June 15, 2011 at 12:36:00 in reply to Comment 64889

Ryan said:"If the Superior Court decision is upheld, Ontario's anti-prostitution laws will be struck down."

Just to be clear, it's nation wide law that will be struck down, not just in Ontario as we are talking about the federal criminal code, not provincial legislation.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 15, 2011 at 12:42:17 in reply to Comment 64892

Quite right - thanks for pointing that out.

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By Synxer (registered) | Posted June 15, 2011 at 12:25:48

Thanks for touching on this, Ryan. I'm of the same opinion. In my experience, the religious and the political right use FUD to create drama around this issue. Safeguards must be in place for these people. We know prostitution exists. We know it's not going anywhere. Forcing sex trade workers into uncertain safety is more of a blight on society than prostitution ever was or will be.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted June 15, 2011 at 19:44:05

No matter what happens this will have no effect/impact/benefit to the women on corners along King Street East and Barton, which its worth pointing out are not exactly side streets.

Unfortunately, they will continue to be severly impacted by drugs, and victimized by men; the dealers, the pimps, the johns and I'm sure a few other I have yet to consider.

So what has all this accomplished? If Terri Jean Bedford and the others want to do some good, they should dedicate their lives to making changes that impact the most vulnerable.

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By who is right (anonymous) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 01:17:58

Aren't people making an assumption that all sex trade workers have issues with either drugs and alcohol?

It is a trade that has always existed, right or wrong, it is a service that fulfills that needs of those who access it.

If it was a recognized trade then would that not generate taxable income?

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By Steve (registered) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 10:01:43 in reply to Comment 64910

I've not made that assumption, as I know it's not true.

But the prostitutes on King East & Barton are drug addicted, 99 times out of 100. Anyone who says otherwise is living in a dream world.

And if the laws change they won't be benefited in one single way.

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By JonC (registered) | Posted June 17, 2011 at 07:15:41 in reply to Comment 64914

These are separate issues. Further, it's more than likely for an individual's drug addiction to predate their prostitution.

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By Help Prostitutes (anonymous) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 10:26:11 in reply to Comment 64914

You just made up that 99 out of 100 number. I don't know if there's any good info on how many street prostitutes in Hamilton are also drug addicted -- at least I can't find any. Maybe it's high but as long as prostitution is still illegal can't really find out. But it's wrong to say making prostitution legal won't help prostitutes. In Holland only 10% of prostitutes have substance abuse problems, that's the same as the rate of Canadians with substance abuse problems according to the Center for Addiction and Mental Illness. Making prostitution legal also makes it easier for prostitutes to work out of brothels instead of on the street, again in Holland most prostitutes now work out of brothels and escort agencies where the workplace is regulated. Tell me that won't help prostitutes, getting access to health care and a safe working environment.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 14:06:12 in reply to Comment 64915

My number was based on years of observations. Sure you can find out if they are drug addicted. If you question that then you haven't walked the street. Walk King and Barton and take notes. You don't even need to interview, you can clearly see the signs of drug addiction.

I never said making prostitution legal won't help prostitutes. I said it won't help a subset of prostitutes. The drug addicted ones, which has a % much higher than 10% on King & Barton Streets.

BTW, a drug addicted prostitute wouldn't be able to work for a brothel or agency. They wouldn't pass the licensing and medical/health regulations.

So again, legalizing prostitution would have zero impact on the drug addicted ones I pass on a daily basis along King & Barton.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 17:01:57 in reply to Comment 64926

My number was based on years of observations. Sure you can find out if they are drug addicted. If you question that then you haven't walked the street. Walk King and Barton and take notes. You don't even need to interview, you can clearly see the signs of drug addiction.

Years of observation of a very small subset of prostitutes. The plural of "anecdote" isn't "data".

I never said making prostitution legal won't help prostitutes. I said it won't help a subset of prostitutes. The drug addicted ones, which has a % much higher than 10% on King & Barton Streets.

Your previous comment wasn't very clear and it's easy to misinterpret what you meant. I did the same thing, but going back and reading it now I can see what you meant. The addiction rate of 10% in Holland is in a protected work environment, which means that it isn't the prostitution that pushes them to be addicts. It's likely the environment that they are forced to work under due to the laws restricting their ability to be safe.

BTW, a drug addicted prostitute wouldn't be able to work for a brothel or agency. They wouldn't pass the licensing and medical/health regulations.

True enough, but she could now get help far more easily than she can in the current environment.

So again, legalizing prostitution would have zero impact on the drug addicted ones I pass on a daily basis along King & Barton.

Holland's experiences would say otherwise. Give them a save work environment and it's always possible that things will improve. Denying them help because you think it won't help them isn't a good way to go.

Comment edited by Brandon on 2011-06-16 17:02:42

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By Steve (registered) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 17:47:37 in reply to Comment 64934

I never once claimed my statement 99 of 100 to be either data or fact. In common language the 99 of 100 is often used to refer to vast majority. Maybe we are from different backgrounds.

My comment was perfectly clear. Please don't blame your quick reading as me not being clear.

How will legalization give more access to help for the drug addicted street prostitutes of Hamilton and elsewhere? There are already programs through various church groups and social agencies available such as Liz Fry. Nowhere have I heard that legalization will provide additional funds or resources. The programs already exist, and for anyone to comment that they aren't utilized because of illegalities can not back up that claim.

You have no proof that Holland's cleaned up drug addicted street prostitution.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 18:12:26 in reply to Comment 64936

I never once claimed my statement 99 of 100 to be either data or fact.

You realize how ridiculous that sounds, right? Citing a statistic and then saying you never meant it to be taken as fact?

My comment was perfectly clear.

At least two people misunderstood you, so maybe it's not as clear as you think.

How will legalization give more access to help for the drug addicted street prostitutes of Hamilton and elsewhere?

How does criminalization help them? It doesn't. Not even a little bit. In fact it hurts them again on top of the hurt that comes from being a prostitute in the first place. It doesn't stop them from being prostitutes, it just ensures that their pimps will be criminals who also deal in drugs and who aren't accountable to anyone but their mob bosses, who don't care one bit about the well being of the prostitutes.

In Canada, every single prostitute is at the mercy of their johns and their pimps. In Holland, prostitutes have rights, including the right to a safe work environment. It's very clear that a lot more prostitutes work in a safe environment in Holland than in Canada, where NO prostitutes work in a safe environment.

Will legalization help street prostitutes? In Holland, there are less street prostitutes since legalization and more brothel/escort service prostitutes. So it's pretty clear that legalization helped some of them even if it didn't help all of them.

Face it, there is NO reason for prostitution to stay illegal in Canada. It hurts prostitutes and it doesn't stop prostitution. As the article says, the worst you can say about legalization is that it doesn't solve every problem. But that's no reason to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 18:52:14 in reply to Comment 64938

Where did you get the stat the "every single prostitute is at the mercy of their johns and their pimps"? Every equals 100%, and I'm sure you have backing data for what you have positioned as fact. I wouldn't want you to sound ridiculous.

I was clear. What is evident was that 2 people didn't read my first post carefully.

Have a good one sided debate I've stated my piece. The street prostitutes along King & Barton do not need to hide on side streets. To position they do shows a lack of understanding of the reality.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 14:39:39 in reply to Comment 64926

legalizing prostitution would have zero impact on the drug addicted ones

Except they might finally get access to support services once they no longer have to hide from the cops.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 16:35:18 in reply to Comment 64929

That comment shows you have no idea of Barton & King Street prostitution issues.

They don't hide, period.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 16, 2011 at 18:06:51 in reply to Comment 64933

What a crock. You claim that 99/100 prostitutes are addicts (a number you made up) - which you know because somehow you can tell just by walking by them (but won't explain how. This of course means that we shouldn't stop trying to jail them, but you can't explain why.

You don't like sex trade workers. We get it.

Yes, drug addiction is a problem among prostitutes. Unfortunatley, as cops, courts and jails have proved absolutely ineffective at dealing with the issue of drugs when prostitution isn't involved, the potential success against prostitutes addicted to drugs seems pretty unlikely.

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By Steve (registered) | Posted June 16, 2011 at 21:12:16 in reply to Comment 64937

WOW, what are you reading??

Never once did I suggest jailing prostitutes. Never once did I say that I didn't "like" prostitutes. In fact, my first post talks about those who are victimize by "men". There you have it my dislike is for the men who victimize. I just want it to be clear.

And, never once did I say there was a "solution" for drug addiction (prostitute related, or not).

And by the way, I'll wager money I can get closer to my number (99/100) then others who have claimed "every" in their arguement, remember that's 100%. Go attack them.

I was never asked how to identify someone addicted to drugs. And I wouldn't do it by walking by them, I'd look at them. And if you can't pick out someone who's addicted to meth or crack, you never look them in the eye when you ride your bike past them, shame on you.

You want to know the "big secret" let me share it with you. Let's see there is the manic pacing, the skeletal look, the rotting and missing teeth, the gaunt look with deteriorating complextion, the asking if one has any supply.

Crack or Joy for Life? You tell me http://3rdshift513.wordpress.com/2008/06...

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 16, 2011 at 02:11:54

If things haven't changed to much since I biked home (about twelve minutes ago), I need only venture a single block to find a woman working, as usual. It seems fairly obvious to me that crimializing prostitution has not served to eliminate the problem.

Like most kinds of prohibition, these laws have a real "beatings will continue until morale improves" quality to them. If strict punishment isn't working to solve complex social problems, the only solution offered up is to punish harder.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted June 16, 2011 at 13:53:29 in reply to Comment 64912

"If strict punishment isn't working to solve complex social problems, the only solution offered up is to punish harder."

I like this Undustrial.

Patience and understanding go along way. I can yell at my kids (punish them because I don't know how or do not have the patience to find a better solution), when they won't listen/are being bad, but the crying will only get louder and go on longer. When I calmly try to reason and patiently keep trying to find a middle ground until something breaks the tears and opens up the communication, it's amazing how much faster reslove is found and how peaceful those moments end.

Both situations always end in a hug and sorry's all around, but I'd much rather the hugs came much sooner in those missunderstandings. With patience and an open mind (or an open ear in the case of children), it will. We all have breaking points, but I think we also all know that in the end,'beatings' and yelling and anger, and punishment, don't solve problems.

You can look at last nights Stanley Cup finals game and be reminded that champions are made and dreams are realized, by patience, determination, teamwork, respect, and love - working together to find a way, to reach those goals together.

There is anger along our paths to realizing our goals for sure, but going back to hockey as an example again for another moment if I could, the hockey fan (or any sports fan for that matter), knows that when anger get's the best of you, things go bad - focus is lost.

I hope our Mayor get's the opportunity to have this discussion with us. Obviously I'd rather we could find a solution to make this problem go away, but perhaps it never will so yes, we should do whatever it takes to make it safer. I think it's a good place to start.

The current laws are about control. Kind of like bans on Bully Breads. Can't control the owners, so let's make the dogs suffer. Can't find a solution to making prostitution go away, so we'll just make them feel like criminals because we are too busy golfing to work on some real solutions.

You could almost group marijuana use into this as things we don't know how to control or pollice, so we just make these things illegal which means so many upstanding citizens in our communities from Dr's, lawyers, politicians, teachers, etc., feel like criminals because they use marijuana as a way to wind down, like so many others choose to achieve with a glass of wine or a cold beer at the end of a hard, hot day.

As a friend of mine always joked "It's all about power and control, man."

Regarding what Steve said, do laws change to make it easier for law enforcement to 'move away' the 'street corner' presence, if a Red Light District is formed?

Comment edited by lawrence on 2011-06-16 14:48:34

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By Art Brut (anonymous) | Posted June 20, 2011 at 12:29:33

"In this economy, running a brothel may be the most reliable work out there. And before everybody jumps on me, I am not saying that everybody at Northwestern will become prostitutes. Obviously the Kellogg graduates will become pimps. Expecting big things from you folks." – Stephen Colbert

http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2011/06/colbert-speech-text.html

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