A Canadian Perspective on Prostitution

We have provided a summary of the Government of Canada report entitled: The Challenge of Change: A Study of Canada’s Criminal Prostitution Laws below.

The original document can be downloaded from the following link:


Pursuant to Standing Order 108, a subcommittee was established to discuss the prostitution laws and present its observations and recommendations. This subcommittee was composed of 2 members of the Conservative Party, 2 members of the Liberal Party, 1 member of the Bloc Quebecois, and 1 member of the New Democratic Party.

The subcommittee outlined that they would be dealing with matters involving adult prostitution from the outset. They outlined that adult prostitution is not illegal in Canada, yet most of the activities surrounding prostitution make it impossible to engage in without committing a crime. They also note that those most likely to be criminalized are primarily vulnerable women facing various hardships, such as poverty, homelessness and drug dependency. Moreover, these individuals most often engage in the most dangerous type of prostitution: street prostitution.

The subcommittee heard testimony from ~300 witnesses ranging from sex workers to law enforcement to obtain a profile of prostitution in Canada. They present that although it is very difficult to estimate the numbers, there are many types of prostitution in Canada. It was clearly noted that street prostitution only accounts for a very small percentage (5-20%) of all prostitution activity in the country. Coupled with the variation in prostitution type is the wide range of settings where prostitution takes place. Thus, the prostitution scene in Canada was described as situations where females are in the position of “sexual slavery or survival sex” (due to homelessness, poverty, to cope with a drug habit, mental illness or a violent past) to “bourgeois styles of the sex trade, where both adults are consenting.”

This led to the issue of choice. Three circumstances emerged from the testimonies the subcommittee heard: a) individuals choose to engage in sex work on their own free will; b) individuals are forced into sex work from a third party; c) the lack of alternatives lead an individual to engage in sex work.

This ultimately led to shaping what the demographic profile of prostitution is in Canada. However, there is a caveat of this demographic as much of the research and not-for-profit, public and law enforcement interactions are with street prostitutes, which only make up a small percentage of prostitutes in Canada. What was mentioned in the report is that based on information the subcommittee received from witness testimony, the first experience with prostitution is between the ages of 14-18 years of age, where females represent 75-80% of individuals practicing prostitution. Of the females that are involved in prostitution ~70% are of Aboriginal origin. The 20% of individuals engaging in prostitution, but are not females, include males, transvestites and transgendered person. There was also clear indication from witness testimony that most male off-street prostitution takes place in private establishments and clubs.

In establishing the demographic of prostitution in Canada, the discussion then led to health and addictions, violence and organized crime. Of the number of witnesses the subcommittee heard from there is reason to believe that for some individuals the relationship between drugs and prostitution are inseparable, especially at the street level. Moreover, it was cited that individuals who engage in off-street prostitution are less likely to use drugs given that it is strongly discouraged by establishments and escort agencies. As such, prostitutes who are addicted to drugs are not surprisingly in poor health and often are the most marginalized and are targeted for crimes of violence.

The violence directed towards prostitutes is not only something that street prostitutes experience, however the information received by the subcommittee suggested that indoor prostitution is safer than street prostitution. Of the homicides involving prostitutes, it was pointed out that 75% of individuals who kill prostitutes are the clients themselves. Some witnesses that the subcommittee heard from also had the view that the rise in the number of prostitute homicides was due to the addition of section 213 of the Criminal Code (prohibiting communication in a public place for the purposes of prostitution). Witnesses further attributed that the violence against prostitution stems from the stigma media creates and the attitude of law enforcement.

Interestingly, the report points out that although the majority of public believes that prostitution is driven by organized crime, this was not supported by any testimony heard by the subcommittee. Moreover, although the majority of the public also believes that those engaging in prostitution are forced into it by a third party, this is by no means in the majority, with respect to adult prostitution. Paradoxically, the subcommittee does acknowledge that there is “no doubt trafficking in persons is at play in prostitution activities, and that trafficked persons are among the most vulnerable in prostitution.” (Aside: Based on what we know about human trafficking today, many international and government organization point to the existence of internationally organized crime networks that are established to traffick individuals around the globe for sexual exploitation or forced labour).

Aside from the demographics and causes of prostitution, the testimonies the subcommittee heard from contradicted each other with respect to the effects of prostitution. Individuals held the view that prostitution is an act of violence against all women, to prostitution is an exchange of sexual services between consenting adults, which is not a problem in and of itself. Therefore, the subcommittee stipulated that it is not the act of prostitution that threatens communities, but the criminal activities individuals are involved in. As such, the effect of prostitution in and of itself on the individual is highly controversial ranging from moralistic to liberation/self-control. However, it was noted by the subcommittee that street prostitution does impact the community in that it increases neighbourhood traffic, noise levels, and litter, while decreasing business, safety, and wellbeing.

Stemming from the discussion involving the profile, causes, and effects of prostitution the subcommittee then turned to addressing the efficacy of the prostitution laws in Canada. The information the subcommittee received led to the conclusion that the laws need to be changed. The majority of witnesses the subcommittee heard from thought that section 213 was not effective in promoting the safety of prostitutes and communities. There was much discussion around the disparity of charges, where prostitutes themselves were more likely to be charged than clients. It was also noted that section 210 – 212 were rarely enforced and accounted for only a very small percentage (~1-10%) of all prostitution-related incidents. Witnesses who were sex workers or not-for-profit organizations advocating sex workers, made the case that section 213 particularly decreased their safety as it pushed prostitutes into remote areas out of touch with resources and did not allow them to effectively screen their clients. These individuals also conveyed to the committee that: a) Section 210 (prohibiting the operation of a bawdy house) prevented prostitutes from creating a stable, safe environment and complicated the social lives of individuals who decide to sell sex from their homes; b) Section 211 (prohibiting the transport of an individual to a bawdy house) prevented prostitutes from establishing working relationships with individuals they felt could safely transport them from one place to another; and c) Section 212 (prohibiting living wholly or in part on the avails of prostitution of another) prevented prostitutes from seeking out a relationship with a manager or employer that could benefit them. Therefore, the overarching position sex worker and sex worker advocate witnesses took was that the current prostitution laws decrease their personal safety and security, jeopardizes their economic security, and increases the stigma towards their profession.

The discussions stemming from the prostitution laws in Canada led the subcommittee to hear testimony from individuals who spoke about the laws in Sweden, Germany, The Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand and the outcome of these laws. From the testimonies on prostitution laws from other countries, the subcommittee felt that these laws would not provide a solution to prostitution in Canada, and that more information was necessary.

The subcommittee therefore outlined a series of recommendations. All members of the subcommittee agreed that the Government of Canada should ensure that commercial sexual exploitation of minors and trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation should be subject to severe penalties.

The subcommittee all agreed that the status quo is unacceptable as they are unequally applied.

It was further recommended that: a) the Government of Canada establish and develop education campaigns and programs to prevent people from entering prostitution and raise awareness of young people and children, and establish exit programs for prostitutes; b) the Government of Canada fund research to obtain a clearer picture and gain a better understanding of prostitution in Canada; c) the Department of Justice coordinate research on prostitution with other levels of government, institutes, NGOs and sex workers in other countries in an effort to develop a Canadian approach to addressing prostitution; and d) measures be taken to improve the safety of individuals selling sex and assisting these individuals to exit prostitution through income support, transfer payments, education and training, poverty alleviation, health and addiction treatments.

Needless to say, not all of the committee agreed upon each of the recommendations and points of view brought forth in the report. The Liberal, New Democratic, and Bloc Quebecois Parties believe that the current legal approach to prostitution in Canada is contradictory and does more harm than good. They believe it marginalizes prostitutes and often leaves them isolated and afraid to report abuse and violence to law enforcement. These Parties further view “sexual activities between consenting adults that do not harm others (whether or not payment is involved) should not be prohibited.” The Conservatives on the other hand, view prostitution as “a degrading and dehumanizing act, often committed and controlled by coercive or opportunistic individuals against victims who are frequently powerless to protect themselves from abuse and exploitation.” They believe that the most realistic, compassionate and responsible approach in dealing with prostitution is to view most prostitutes as victims. The Conservatives further believe that prostitution has social costs for all citizens, in particular Canadian women. The Conservatives do agree that the status quo with respect to the enforcement of laws is unacceptable, however disagrees that decriminalization is the solution.