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Risky business

Dealing with prostitution the Nordic way appeals to both left and right -- but it could cause more harm than good

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/3/2014 (1233 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Peter MacKay has a tough job ahead, one that could alter the fate of hundreds of Winnipeg's most vulnerable women.

Before the end of the year, the federal justice minister must untangle Canada's bewildering, arcane and ineffective prostitution laws, key parts of which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in December.

Just recently, Manitoba's Andrew Swan became the first provincial justice minister to call on Ottawa to craft new prostitution legislation based on the Nordic model. It's a model in effect in Sweden and Norway that seeks to curb prostitution by stamping out demand. The law bans buying sex but does not criminalize the prostitutes themselves or the selling of sex. It's a model that has spawned unlikely bipartisan alliances in Canada between some feminist and evangelical groups, a coalition that has extended to Manitoba, where Swan has forged a partnership with Conservative MP Joy Smith, a relentless opponent of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

If Joy Smith and Andrew Swan -- a suburban righty and an inner-city lefty -- agree on something, I figure it's probably a reasonably good idea. And like many Canadians, I'm inclined toward the social policies common in Nordic countries, which tend to be more egalitarian, more compassionate and more progressive than Canada's risk-averse political climate might be able to tolerate.

The Nordic model could clarify Canada's remarkably confusing patchwork of rules that have half-heartedly governed the sale of sexual services for decades. The model criminalizes what many would consider the true villains: the creeps who cruise inner-city streets propositioning young girls; the men who operate in the shadowy world of online escort services; and the whole parasitic industry that manipulates women with limited options.

If Swan's hopes bear out, the Nordic model would come with significant new money to help women cope with all the reasons they may be selling sex in the first place -- addictions, mental illness, childhood abuse and hopeless poverty. That could be huge for Winnipeg, where entrenched poverty and the marginalization of indigenous women means we have a significant sex trade, both seen and unseen.

To me the Nordic model seems, at first blush, like a natural step in the right direction. But in fact, it might do more harm than good, and it might be just as unconstitutional as the old rules.

Some experts on the sex trade, including Winnipeg's Shawna Ferris and Toronto's Sandra Ka Hon Chu, argue the Nordic model actually makes prostitution more dangerous because customers, fearful of police, force women to set aside all their danger detectors in favour of speed. Under pressure to avoid police detection, women won't have time to check out a john's car, compare him to the bad-date list, clearly negotiate fees, services and safe-sex measures and do a general gut check of a potentially dangerous situation.

Because buying sex is illegal, the Nordic model also condemns street prostitution to even more remote and dangerous locales. And it means a john meeting a woman in hotel room or her home will likely give a false name, making it more difficult to track a culprit if a woman is assaulted, raped or robbed.

Chu and Ferris say criminalizing johns is just a backdoor way of criminalizing the whole enterprise, driving it further underground and putting women in the same risky situations the Supreme Court deemed an unconstitutional violation of a person's right to life, liberty and security. Chu and Ferris echo the words of some working in Vancouver's sex trade who fear the law will actually lead to more missing and murdered women.

"We're doing nobody any favours when you make the conditions of their work extremely precarious," said Chu, the co-director of research and advocacy at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. "On paper, it looks like a better model, but the evidence doesn't bear that out."

In Sweden, where the law has been in place for 15 years, reviews are mixed. There is a fear some women are being harassed by police, or coerced into leaving the sex trade under threat their children will be taken away or their landlord will evict them. Brothels are still illegal, so women can't band together and form co-operatives for safety. Sex-trade workers report increased levels of violence and more pressure to engage in unsafe sex.

On the other hand, Sweden believes it has reduced the number of prostitutes considerably, and laws in other countries, such as France, are moving in Sweden's direction.

There is a deeper question beyond the efficacy of the law. How do we think of sex-trade workers? Are they victims who have been coerced into prostitution either by a pimp, an unyielding addition or emotional trauma from a childhood of abuse and neglect? Or are they adults making reasonable decisions for themselves based on the best available options? Is the sex trade a form of violence against women from which prostitutes need to be saved? Or are prostitutes autonomous citizens pursuing legitimate work that deserves the same legal protection and dignity offered to anyone performing any less-than-desirable job most of us shun?

As Ferris says, as abominable as we may find it, the fact is many women have a better chance of supporting themselves and their families through the sex trade than working at McDonald's. Until that changes, it makes practical sense to legalize and regulate the profession instead of infantilizing sex-trade workers as victims, a burdensome label that sticks for life and ought not to be enshrined in federal law.

"We want people who want out of the sex trade to get out. We want the people in it to be protected," said Ferris. "Laws that criminalize sex workers or their clients don't allow for those kinds of protections."

It's not yet clear what the feds will do. MacKay has given only two hints about his thinking. First, he's said some legislation is needed, which means we won't likely see legalization through omission, like we have for abortion. Second, he's said he's open to the Nordic model. Swan has hinted other provinces will echo Manitoba's support of the Nordic model in the coming months.

The arguments made by Ferris and Chu are nuanced and convincing. But then so is the experience of Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, an old-school, tough-on-crime Tory, who speaks with candour and compassion about her time as a rookie police officer working undercover on the stroll. She has said the law can and must be used as a tool to combat prostitution.

"It was easy to find a customer and very easy to negotiate money for a sexual favour. And when these girls are so desperately in need of money, for whatever reason -- because they are being told they have to do this for protection, because they are hooked on drugs, because they are trying to feed their families -- because it was so easy, I can see how they continue to live this lifestyle that puts them in danger," she told the CBC. "These are girls that, for the most part, are being exploited by their parents, their boyfriends, their pimps, who are in some vulnerable situations."

I do not envy Peter MacKay.



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