Canada Debates Prostitution

Move to Perpetuate Women’s Exploitation

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In June the Supreme Court of Canada heard a debate regarding laws concerning prostitution. The Ontario Court of Appeal had previously invalidated some of the restrictions on prostitution.

This decision was appealed by Ontario and federal authorities also argued before the Supreme Court against the changes.

Prior to the Ontario decision prostitution was not illegal, but there were restrictions on establishing brothels and the commercial organization of prostitution.

Canada has seen issues such as abortion, same-sex “marriage,” euthanasia, and now prostitution being debated in recent years. It is probably not a coincidence that at the same time religious practice has declined.

On June 27 the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published a report titled: “Canada’s Changing Religious Landscape: ‘Nones’ and Religious Minorities on the Rise, Religious Attendance in Decline.”

Two-thirds of Canadians, the report explained, identify themselves as Catholic or Protestant, but both these religious groups have experienced a significant decline in numbers.

The number of Canadians who identify as Catholic has dropped from 47% to 39% over the last four decades. The fall in those who identify as Protestant was more severe, from 41% to 27%.

In addition, the Pew Forum pointed out, the number of Canadians who do not identify with any religion has risen greatly, from 4% in 1971 to 24% in 2011.


When the issue of prostitution laws came before the Supreme Court on June 13 those in favor of removing restrictions argued that it would make women safer, a position supported by many media reports and newspaper editorials.

Are women, however, better off when prostitution is legalized? Not at all, contested some opinion writers.

“I think the men who treat women’s bodies as disposable objects or profit from their exploitation belong in the gutter,” wrote Shari Graydon in the Ottawa Citizen on June 14.

She argued in favor of decriminalizing the role of women involved in prostitution, but retaining the legal prohibitions against brothels and pimping. Graydon also commented that the majority of women involved in prostitution are coerced or are seeking escape from abusive conditions and that they want to stop what they are doing.

A June 3 opinion article in the Globe and Mail newspaper by Meghan Murphy expressed similar views. The legal debate over prostitution laws has been going on since 2007, she observed.

Between the two opposites of legalization or total criminalization there is another option, she explained, namely protecting women and criminalizing the activity by pimps and those who pay for prostitutes.

Real equality for women, she argued, does not mean legalizing prostitution. “The idea is that women deserve better options than prostitution and should not have to resort to selling sex in order to survive,” she said.

“Prostitution is the most exploitative, degrading work on Earth,” said Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente, on June 22.

“This idealized portrait of the sex worker as empowered small-business entrepreneur could only have been dreamed up in a women’s studies course,” she added, referring to the case put forward by those arguing for removing restrictions on prostitution.

Wente explained that in a number of countries where prostitution has been legalized the results have not been positive for women. The Netherlands, for example, has suffered from the influence of criminal gangs, and the use of brothels as centers for money laundering and drugs.

Problems remain

The failure of legalization in Germany was set out in length in an article published by Spiegel Online on May 30.

When it was legalized just over a decade ago politicians hoped that the result would be better conditions for sex workers. “It hasn’t worked out that way, though,” the article stated. “Exploitation and human trafficking remain significant problems,” it said.

In a report published five years after changes to the law, the German Family Ministry concluded that: deregulation had «not brought about any measurable actual improvement in the social coverage of prostitutes.»

“If there were no demand for commercial sex, sex trafficking would not exist in the form it does today,” stated the Trafficking in Persons Report 2013, published June 19 by the U.S. Department of State.

“This reality underscores the need for continued strong efforts to enact policies and promote cultural norms that disallow paying for sex,” the report said.

The occurrence of trafficking people does not depend on the legality of prostitution, the report affirmed.

Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation accounts for 58% of all trafficking cases detected globally, according to the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

“Prostitution and consumers of so-called ‘sexual services’ not only contribute to the trafficking of women and girls but also disrespect their human dignity,” stated Archbishop Francis Chullikatt at a UN High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons, held in New York, 13-14 May.

The evidence is clear that legalizing or facilitating prostitution does not solve problems of abuse or trafficking and only perpetuates the exploitation of women.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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