My Work Should Not Cost Me My Life: A Report on the Consequences of Canada's Introduction of the “Nordic Model”

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(c) Pivot Legal Society

Since December 20, 2013 when the Supreme Court of Canada struck down three of the country’s most harmful prostitution laws (the communication, bawdy house, and living on the avails laws) in what was known as the Canada v. Bedford Case, there has been intense speculation over what new legislation, when it is enacted, will look like.

The federal government is currently contemplating the introduction of a criminal law that is influenced by the much-debated Nordic Model, in which the purchase of sex is criminalised but, proponents of the model claim, the person selling sex is not criminalised.

On Tuesday, June 3, Pivot Legal Society(which actively campaigns for the rights of sex workers and was an intervener in Canada v. Bedford)released a study on the human rights impact of criminalising sex workers’ clients. Centering evidence, and the voices of sex workers themselves, Pivot collaborated with Sex Workers United Against Violence (a peer-based organisation of active and former sex workers who live or work in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver) and drew upon findings from a recently published report by public health researchers at the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative (GSHI) to create a project that, through interviews, looked at the experience of Vancouver sex workers working in the Downtown Eastside and Kingsway areas of Vancouver.

Choosing Vancouver as the site of research was no accident. In January 2013, Vancouver police adopted a new policy that is similar to the Nordic Model in that emphasises undercover stings to target the clients of sex workers.

Katrina Pacey, Pivot’s Litigation Director, wrote at Pivot’s website:

“The Vancouver experience is very instructive because the VPD (Vancouver Police Department) have a policy that directs enforcement away from targeting sex workers towards targeting clients. So, in many ways and despite strong opposition to this approach from local sex worker organizations, Vancouver is already experimenting with a Swedish approach to enforcement of the existing laws”.

The report, called My Work Should Not Cost Me My Life: The Case Against Criminalizing the Purchase of Sex in Canada, found evidence that the introduction of Nordic Model-style legislation would not be in the best interests for Canadian sex workers. Evidence gathered shows that law enforcement targeted at clients does not decrease prostitution, and that, rather than arresting clients for trying to purchase sexual services, sex workers want their clients arrested only when they are violent, abusive or exploitive. The report also found that when police target clients of sex workers, the health and safety of sex workers is compromised by having to move their work to more dangerous, less visible and isolated areas of the city, and through having less time to negotiate and screen clients (because under the threat of arrest, transactions need to be carried out swiftly) and a lack of access to police protection.

A constitutional analysis of the findings by Pivot’s legal team came to the conclusion that a law that prohibits the purchase of sex, if enacted in Canada, would violate sex workers’ right to security of the person, as protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“In our opinion, such a law would not withstand constitutional scrutiny,” the report said. “It is clear that criminalising the purchase of sexual services will recreate the same devastating harms as the current prostitution laws. With this knowledge, it would be unconscionable to enact such a law and then wait for a constitutional challenge to wind its way through the courts. Sex workers need immediate access to safer working conditions.”

The report concludes with four recommendations for the government:

  • Canada’s laws should not prohibit the purchase or sale of sexual services by adults.
  • Ensure sex workers are in a leadership position in all future law and policy development.
  • Use existing criminal laws to target violence and abuse in the sex industry.
  • Invest in government programs to support sex workers’ rights and safety, and alleviate poverty and discrimination.

“We have given these reports to government and shared them with all Canadians in the hope that the central message of the report will be clear: enacting a new law that targets clients will recreate the harmful conditions that have been endured by sex workers in the streets of the Downtown Eastside” said Pacey.

The full report is available to download here.