On Prostitution, Can Canada Learn from the Nordic Model?

Criminalizing buyers, not sellers may enhance gender equity, but critics warn of increased danger to sex workers.

By Meghan Murphy 11 Apr 2012 |

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and is completing a Master's degree at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism.

image atom
Terri Jean Bedford, whose bawdy house was raided in 1994, was one of three applicants in the recent constitutional challenge of Canada's prostitution laws. Source: Wikipedia.

Trisha Baptie, a former sex worker who recently visited Sweden and spoke with government officials and women who still work in prostitution, says the Nordic model has been effective at lowering incidences of prostitution as well as trafficking, but also that it is very much a symbolic law.

"It isn't to say that men have completely stopped buying sex from women, but it did set the country on a different trajectory in terms of setting a standard of equality."

She said that because of it, young women and men in Sweden now understand prostitution as something that works against gender equity.

Criminalizing johns dangerous: Woodsworth

Former Vancouver city councillor Ellen Woodsworth is critical of the Nordic model and believes that criminalizing buyers, or johns, will only increase the danger to sex workers.

"Criminalizing only the men doesn't change the situation at all. It makes people jump into cars without checking out who's in the car, because the johns want to get out of the situation as quickly as possible," she said.

The theory behind such an approach is that, if johns are decriminalized, prostituted women working the street will have more time to assess whether or not a man is violent before getting into his car.

But Baptie says that in her experience, the theory is a myth: "I had five minutes, I had two minutes, I had ten minutes... it didn't matter. It's the luck of the draw. There was no real way for us to know who was going to be a good date and who was going to be a bad date."

Benedet also contests this idea, saying it "misses the point" as to the source of danger to prostituted women. She thinks that men want to get out of public view regardless of whether or not prostitution is criminalized, and that there's no surefire way of knowing if a client will turn violent once behind closed doors.

Woodsworth wants to see prostitution treated as an occupation like any other, meaning that sex workers would have rights like any other worker. "Whether there's violence involved in the work, it's still a job," she said.

Like feminists who want to see an eventual end to prostitution, also known as abolitionists, Woodsworth wants society to move beyond looking at prostitution as a moral issue or as a sin.

The division between those who advocate for full decriminalization and those who support the Nordic model is the end goal. One group wants to see prostitution treated like a job like any other, while the other sees it at odds with women's rights.

A new view

What's missing from the Bedford case and from decriminalization advocacy is a discussion about who commits violent acts against sex workers. While there is a lot of talk about harm reduction and how women in prostitution can best avoid rape, assault and even death, there is little focus on the johns themselves.

What makes the Nordic model different is the lens through which prostitution is viewed. As Ekberg notes: "When you decide to look at prostitution from the point of view of the victims and then analyze those who commit the violence, it becomes clear that it doesn't matter if you have nice curtains and silk sheets or if you're in the back seat of a car, but it is what the buyer does to you that is the harm."

Benedet believes the Nordic model would work well for Canada and is completely transferable. To that end, she points out that Section 2124 of the Canadian Criminal Code, which criminalizes the solicitation of services from prostitutes under the age of 18, could be easily applied to adults.

"But it has to be accompanied by both a public statement to discourage demand as well as services at the other end. That's what is sometimes ignored when we talk about the Nordic model," she said.

The purpose of the model is to provide choices for women that go beyond selling sex in order to survive. Benedet adds: "Obviously there has to be a state commitment to offer something better and not to use prostitution as a social safety net."

In Canada there are no real comprehensive exiting services for women who want to leave the trade. The Nordic model could provide a solution and is seen by many as a way to work towards women's equality beyond simply treating prostitution as a viable solution to poverty.

The decision in Ontario will undoubtedly go to the Supreme Court of Canada for a final ruling. To lawyer Ekberg, it's important not to jump from analysis to measures before you have a vision and to her, the vision needed for prostitution law is one of equality.

"It was very clear to us that this (the Nordic model) was a feminist measure, and that this legislation was about women's human rights," she said.

[Tags: Gender + Sexuality, Rights + Justice.]  [Tyee]

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox