Decriminalizing Prostitution: Good for women’s health?

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October 2010

Will decriminalizing prostitution do more good than harm to Canada’s sex workers, most of whom are women?

This is the public debate being waged since Ontario Superior Court Judge Susan Himel made her landmark ruling decriminalizing prostitution on September 28, 2010. Ruling in favour of plaintiffs Amy Lebovitch, Terri-Jean Bedford, and Valerie Scott, Himel stated that the laws against keeping a common bawdy house, communicating for the purposes of prostitution, and living on the avails violated the women’s Charter rights to freedom of expression and security of the person. The ruling, which opens the way for similar judgments in other provinces, will not take effect in Ontario until the end of October. The federal government has announced that it is appealing the decision.

Important to this debate is how this ruling will affect the health of sex workers, most of whom are women.

Many maintain that decriminalizing prostitution will improve the health status of sex workers. Recently the Canadian Medical Association Journal decried “the hypocrisy of Canada’s prostitution legislation”, arguing that women sex workers on the street or “street-involved-women” experience “some of the worst health outcomes in our society, including drug-related harms, trauma, and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Standardized mortality rates among female street-based sex workers are higher than any other population of women in North America, with homicide being the most common cause of death.”

Some sex-worker advocacy groups say that because of Himel’s ruling sex workers will be less likely to contract sexually transmitted infections (STI’s), and will be exposed to less violence. They claim that sex workers will work less on the streets if they can work legally in brothels, where they can better screen out violent clients and those who refuse to practice safe sex. In her judgment, Justice Himel referred to the case of New Zealand where condoms are required to be used in regulated brothels.

However, some other advocacy groups maintain that Himel’s decision will not protect sex workers from violence, and will only encourage more human trafficking. They argue that prostitution itself exploits women, and, while sex work should be legal, living off the avails – pimping – should not. Some argue Canada should follow the model of Sweden, where pimping and buying sex is illegal and there is an array of social supports to help sex workers leave the trade.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada argues that the decision “glosses over the fact that Aboriginal women, women in low income situations, those suffering from mental health and addictions issues are working in prostitution because of systemic racism and classism, as well as a fundamental power imbalance and issues of inequality, which is at the root of prostitution.”   

Clearly, this legal decision will have implications for the health and safety of sex workers, but there is no consensus yet what those effects will be. And many questions remain as to what happens next. Will the government now regulate sex work, as in any other industry, to protect the health and safety of the workers? Check in with CWHN as we monitor this debate over the coming weeks and months.

For more on the issue, please see: 


Pan Canadian Coalition Granted Leave to Intervene in Bedford Case

University of Toronto Criminology professor Dr. Mariana Valverde (Interview on CBC)

Prostitution ruling confronts wall of apathy (National Post) (Dan Gardner)

Sex work: how it's viewed around the world (CBC)

New Zealand and Sweden: two models of reform (Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network) (PDF)

Sweden's prostitution solution: 1999 law treats prostitution as a form of male violence against women (Straightgoods)


Other Statements

Sex Professionals of Canada

Native Youth Sexual Health Network (Facebook)

Pivot Legal Society, FIRST and BC Coalition of Experiential Communities

Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (scroll down to “Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network Hails Decision of Ontario Court That Supports Rights of Sex Workers”)

Simone de Beauvoir Institute’s Statement: A Feminist Position on Sex Work (PDF)

Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies (2008 Resolution) (PDF)

Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution and the South Asian Women against Male Violence (PDF)

Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres (PDF)

Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter

"Prostitution: Violating the Human Rights of Poor Women" by Shelagh Day (Action ontarienne contre la violence faite aux femmes) (PDF)


Health Research

Prostitution Laws: Health Risks and Hypocrisy (Canadian Medical Association Journal)

Management of Sex Workers and Other High-Risk Groups (Occupational Medicine)