Sex trade law rife with misconceptions

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In the wake of a Supreme Court decision striking down Canada's prostitution laws, the Harper government says it is working on new legislation to address harm in the sex trade. But if Parliament hopes to address harm associated with prostitution effectively, it must consider the diversity of perspectives and experiences of people involved in the sex trade.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/03/2014 (3187 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the wake of a Supreme Court decision striking down Canada’s prostitution laws, the Harper government says it is working on new legislation to address harm in the sex trade. But if Parliament hopes to address harm associated with prostitution effectively, it must consider the diversity of perspectives and experiences of people involved in the sex trade.

As a researcher whose work focuses on the attitudes and behaviours of buyers of sexual services, I pay attention to talk about prostitution laws. So far, I’ve only seen the uncritical endorsement of the so-called “Nordic model” law mentioned by the government, particularly its most vocal proponent, Conservative MP Joy Smith.

The Nordic model criminalizes the purchase of sex, but not its sale. This legal approach is based on a number of claims that are either unsupported or outright challenged by existing Canadian research, as well as international studies. One of the main claims is that any woman’s involvement in the sex trade is itself the harm that she needs to be protected from. A second related claim is that every man’s decision to pay for sex is one of the main contributors to the harm women involved in the sex trade face. As such, the act of buying sex needs to be punished.

In places where the Nordic model has been adopted, both sex worker and researchers have challenged the claimed success that it effectively addresses harm experienced by some people in the sex trade. In reality, adopting it has made lives of those involved in the sex industry more, rather than less, difficult and dangerous.

In my own research over close to 20 years, I have heard from more than 2,500 individuals who purchase sexual services from across the country. The information I have gathered from surveys, interviews and ethnographic observation certainly does not indicate there is a singular experience of paying for sex, particularly not one that would seem “inherently violent.”

My research also shows women, men, transgender and transsexual people from diverse racial, ethnic and class backgrounds sell sexual services, and women — alone or as part of a couple — and men from equally diverse backgrounds also purchase sexual services.

What people who purchase sexual services are looking for is often specific to where they find themselves at points in their lives. Both buyers and sellers participate in the sex industry to meet a variety of needs, alongside different challenges and opportunities and under a diversity of conditions.

Certainly clients have expressed concern about safety and about situations of violence that can take place in commercial sexual encounters. Saying that these situations are an “inherent” and uniform feature of every encounter does a great disservice to any person who has had to address threats or acts of violence while involved in prostitution.

Saying that there is a single experience of paying for and selling of sexual services erases the complexities that exist in human interactions and human lives. Failing to acknowledge the complexities that exist in Canada’s sex trade and the diversity of voices that best understand them runs the risk of amplifying the harms the government says it is concerned about.

The Supreme Court decision gives Canadians an opportunity to right the wrongs of past legislators. I fully support Parliament in wanting to address harms experienced by some people involved in the sex trade. If it is truly interested in doing so properly, it better start by listening to voices of sex workers and paying attention to the growing body of ethically and methodologically sound research that provides a much clearer picture of what that harm looks like and the conditions where it occurs.


Chris Atchison is a sociology research associate at the University of Victoria

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