Criminalizing the Buying of Sex in Canada

A street prostitute talking to a potential customer in Torino, Italy.
A street prostitute talking to a potential customer in Torino, Italy. (photo: Wikipedia)

Many political conservatives in the United States are accustomed to looking at Canada as a hotbed of liberalism, where the consequences of the sexual revolution have progressed further than they have at home. So it’s nice to be able to write about something that Canada is doing right.

Bill C-36, the Conservative government’s proposed prostitution bill, is currently being fast-tracked through Canada’s legislative system following a decision by the Canadian Supreme Court to strike down the existing prostitution laws late last winter. The existing laws were challenged on the basis that they endangered prostitutes in order to advance a Victorian agenda of social decency.

Prostitution has always been legal in Canada, but under the old laws it was illegal to keep a “bawdy house,” which could include a woman’s private home or a place where a group of prostitutes work together for mutual protection. It was also illegal to pick up “clients” in a public place — a practice that many prostitutes consider essential in order to screen men who are dangerously drunk, high or violent.

The dilemma surrounding prostitution laws is that if you make prostitution legal, as in New Zealand or Germany, it becomes theoretically possible to create safer working conditions for prostitutes — but it also leads to an increase in demand. If you make prostitution illegal, as in most U.S. jurisdictions, then women who have been forced into prostitution, or those who have been raped or physically assaulted by a john, may fear legal repercussions if they seek protection from police. Canada's proposed law follows a trend brought in from Europe that attempts to side-step these problems. It’s called the “Nordic” model because it was first adopted in Scandinavian countries. Under the new law, will still be legal to be a prostitute, but not to purchase sex, or to sell another person for sexual purposes.

If Bill C-36 goes through, it will also be illegal for print and on-line publications to run ads selling sexual services. The government has also pledged $20 million over five years to help people who want to get out of prostitution.

The question of how best to regulate prostitution is one that has long been debated. The Church has always taught that prostitution is a grave evil, however opinions have differed as to how it ought to be regulated under secular law.

In their time, Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas actually felt that legal sanctions against prostitution were a bad idea. Aquinas, in the Summa, wrote that “Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now, although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless he allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which he might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred. Thus, Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): “If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.”

In both cases, the thinking seems to be that prostitution serves as a less harmful way of curbing male lust. Both Aquinas and Augustine believe that it is a great evil, but seem to fear that its suppression will lead to worse. The argument is that men are going to commit sexual sins, and that it’s better for them to do so with a prostitute than to corrupt “honest” women. This evaluation would seem to arise out of a presumption that the protection of virgins and wives is more important than the protection of prostitutes.

The development of Catholic thought has led toward more nuanced conclusions. According to the Catechism, “Prostitution does injury to the dignity of the person who engages in it, reducing the person to an instrument of sexual pleasure.”

The contemporary Church has become increasingly aware that prostitution is often a form of violence; that it is rarely freely chosen; that it gravely endangers the lives of those who are forced to participate in it; and that men who are abusing prostitutes are likely to display far less moral concern for their partners than those who seek unpaid sex. According to a recent FBI bulletin, 88% of prostitutes would not be selling sex if they felt they had a choice.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote, “I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking. How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: ‘Where is your brother?’ (Genesis 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved?” He explicitly lists women enslaved by prostitution rings among the vulnerable whose plight must immediately concern us all.

Following a meeting in April with four women who were the victims of sex trafficking, the Pope described this evil as “an open wound on the body of contemporary society.”

In 2005, the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People held an international meeting on the pastoral care and liberation of “women of the street.” The meeting focused largely on the problem of sex trafficking, recognizing prostitution as “a form of modern day slavery.”

The meeting concluded, among other things, that “The legal aspects of prostitution and trafficking — prohibition, regulation, abolition — must be attended to in every country. Examples of good practice should be shared (e.g. from Sweden).” This is the very model which the Canadian government has proposed.

In addition, “The exploiters (generally men) who are ‘clients,’ traffickers, sex tourists, etc., need education in both the hierarchy of human values and in human rights. They also need to hear a clear condemnation of their evil and injustice by the Church if not by the State.”

The meeting also recognized that there are deep-seated problems that drive men to buy sex. “The “client needs more than social condemnation and having to face the full rigors of the law. He must also be helped to face his deeper problems and to find other ways of dealing with his personal needs. Buying sex from a prostitute does not solve problems that arise from loneliness, frustration or a lack of true relationships.”

Critics of Canada’s proposed law include some people who voluntarily engage in prostitution. These argue that if buyers are worried about legal repercussions, they will be less willing to meet publicly before procuring sexual services, and may insist on providing their services in their own home — a situation which prostitutes describe as particularly dangerous.

Advocates, on the other hand, point out that when you criminalize the buying of sex, you radically decrease demand. It’s always difficult to garner accurate statistics about illegal or socially stigmatized activities, however there is considerable data to suggest that many men won’t pay for sex if there’s a risk of prosecution that may out them to family, potential employers, etc.

Canadian Catholics who have been working to improve Canada’s response to human trafficking and sexual exploitation see this bill as a big step in the right direction. According to Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver, “The anti-trafficking legislation introduced by the federal government last month is a welcome first step toward filling Canada’s legislative void concerning prostitution and trafficking.”

He goes on to say, “The bill acknowledges the need to protect human dignity and recognizes the violence, exploitation and social harm inherent in prostitution. The bill also sets out to discourage prostitution, which has a disproportionate impact on women and children. It aims to encourage those who engage in prostitution to report violence and to leave prostitution.”