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Decriminalizing the oldest profession in the world

blogged by Adam Gorley and Yosie Saint-Cyr


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We were reading some very interesting articles in the media regarding the constitutional challenge to prostitution laws by sex-trade workers. These articles are saying that the law makes no sense. Alan Young, the Osgoode Hall law professor representing the women, aptly says “his clients can’t understand why prostitution itself is not directly prohibited, and yet all incidental transactions involved in prostitution are” (CTV News). Consequently, they want the Court to strike down all the Criminal Code sections pertaining to solicitation, to effectively decriminalize prostitution—as a result, making the sex trade a viable profession in its own right.

The key issue is the contradictory laws that make performing sex for money (prostitution) legal in Canada, while restricting where prostitutes can practise the trade, and severely limiting the people with whom they can associate. The Criminal Code prohibits soliciting sex, living off of the money earned from sex and operating a “bawdy house,” each of which can be so broadly defined as to make it extremely difficult for prostitutes and other sex-trade workers to operate. Imagine if the law allowed people to manufacture alcoholic drinks, but made it illegal to sell them anywhere but out of the back of a van, and prevented the producers from earning a living from those sales.

Many are of the opinion, that if the government wants to make prostitution illegal, it is taking a needlessly backwards approach—and one that puts at great risk of violence and illness any practitioner in the sex trade.

Moreover, the sex-trade workers in this case argue that restrictions on their work activities are a violation of their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to security of the person and freedom of expression. Sex workers were saying in Court yesterday that “If prostitutes could work from home they would be safer and not a public nuisance on the street” (Toronto Sun).

By legalizing prostitution, the government would benefit from having incomes declared and taxes paid. Also, sex workers would be licensed, regulated and could have regular occupational health and safety check-ups to avoid and minimize work-related injuries and diseases. Prostitution could move from the streets to indoor locations such as brothels or other private locations.

As the so-called “world’s oldest profession,” many people believe that prostitution will never go away, and it is better to regulate than to punish. That way, the government could properly protect sex-trade workers and punish those who would attack and injure them

So what do you think, should Canada decriminalize the oldest profession in the world?

Adam Gorley and Yosie Saint-Cyr, Human Resources and Compliance Editors

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Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B. Managing Editor

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 18 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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16 thoughts on “Decriminalizing the oldest profession in the world
  • Concerned n' Resolute says:

    I will support the protection of persons in prostitution (especially minors) as long as it is counter balanced with criminalizing the purchase of sex.

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Thanks for your comments, Sandra, Whatever, and Concerned n’ Resolute–all excellent insights that demonstrate the reasons that the issue of legalizing/decriminalizing prostitution will almost certainly always remain controversial.

    Sandra brings up the reason why prostitution is often called the world’s oldest profession: demand. The demand for sex in exchange for something else of value is clearly the root of the “problem”, and it has probably existed for as long as humans have communicated with one another. Prostitution exists in good times and bad, probably no more now than ever.

    So to eliminate prostitution, we would have to create a society with a very different relationship to sex than the one we currently have–i.e., valuing and inviting sex only within “equal” relationships, be they monogamous or promiscuous.

    Unfortunately, even now (and throughout history) women and men (and women and women, and men and men) often have “unequal” relationships, in which one partner holds power over the other, frequently to the point of abuse and violence. That is to say, even partners in long-term marriages and partnerships often do not value sex as equals.

    But we accept that as natural or even normal and we do what we can where possible to protect the victims in those relationships.

    I’m all for creating a society where women and men feel that they don’t have to enter prostitution as a career or where they have all the opportunities in the world to fulfill their potential to the betterment of the country and world. But that is not the society we live in now.

    And now, I believe that we can do more to protect the vulnerable among us–and if that means treating prostitutes as people and workers, rather than criminals, then I support that.

  • Sandra says:

    We are forgetting two things. One, some sex-trade workers choose to do this and don’t in fact do it for lack of support/not being able to get away from the slums etc. So any support systems that are/would be in place would make no diference.

    Second, as long as there is demand someone will supply. So, until our society no longer wants to pay for sex there will always be prostitution.

    Sex-trade workers are still part of this society, and just as convicted murderers and rapists that are in prison get to be protected by the government (which our tax money pays for) we must protect sex-trade workers too.

  • Whatever says:

    Should they get WSIB coverage?

    Do they fill out accident reports?

    How is this going to keep them any safer?

    “They” are already choosing the easy way out…(not without it’s issues) Why choosing this profession? Is it self loathing, insecurity, no other skill, no way of getting a better education, no way of getting out of the slum, no way of getting away from their pimps, no societal support. Lack of, Lack of, Lack of, is what I hear. Yes let’s help them… maybe at the checkout counter there should be a donation bin for crisis selters or specialized tasks forces or something. There has to be other alternatives.

    Has anyone even picked up that gauntlet I don’t know, what I do know is that I don’t want this legal in my country and then develop as in other countries into more sex-trading. Want to see what that is like just google sexy asians – not only can you catch but if you are lucky and have enough money you can marry one too. This is how we’re going to solve our problem by letting them sell themselves?

    Maybe it’s just me trying to wrap my head around this.

  • Whatever says:

    Let’s help Canada climb out of the gutter rather than mask the decay.

    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    I’m not going to apologize for being “old fashioned” and being worried about the way our “society” is moving. For example, Cyberbulling, please report the problem to the kids parents and parents have the balls to walk over and unplug the computer. All these things that kids get today are previliges there is no entitlement. Let me say again, what are our men fightingand dying for in Afganistan? They believe they are protecting our great nations, so let’s give just that to them.

    The underlying issue is not resolved with bandaids. I once heard it takes a community to raise a child – then let’s build that community and provide appropriate role models. Hookers living next door to me in a “house” that is legalized is not going to help. There is a reason way this profession isn’t glamorized, nor should it be. There is nothing wrong with saying that. Can earn the same money… well what about dignity and an “honest” living. I come from a family of the mom coming from a family of eighteen and her brothers and sisters all having about 10 kids each, my first cousins having 1-3 kids each… and not one of them turned to prostitution. Need to earn “a lot of money” for what to support drug habits and trafficking…let’s not even talk about those issues.

    And before you say it was because of all of our support – don’t. She raised me as a single parent after being cheated on, yes there was some family support but she put in the effort and still took the time to instill morals and values…supposedly Canadian values. Opening the door for other people (man or woman) and human dignity should be taught as well as respect for one’s individuality and property. Institutions are being closed down just for this reason. I’m for inclusion all the way. Take care of your families and stand up for what communities should be.

    I’m not saying sweep the ugly under the carpet. Unfortunately, there are many socioeconmic reasons why men and women choose devaluing professions, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Society is already having a problem with pedifiles et cetera. What happens when we say it’s okay to sell your body for money in my neighbourhood? What about those parents that are trying to teach appropriateness of webcams etc. You say yes to this, then what. The internet is already filled with crap that should be removed. Our world shouldn’t be about not typing in kitten into google and coming up with x-rated pictures not necessary for our younger audiences. On that note,I am my child’s view discression… I already have to teach her enough about evil in the world to keep her safe – I certainly don’t want the John’s walking in and out of “legalized houses” on my street.

    Daytime viewing should be discressed to PG13. Life is not always about having the pleasure of R-rated movies.

    I also think that we shouldn’t have apprentices in this trade as well. Are we going to get Ministry Funding for this as well.

    Canada has enough problems to fix, let’s not capitalized on the underdogs… Even playing fields are sometimes made by developing new skills rather than lowering the curve.

  • Concerned n' Resolute says:

    I absolutley cringe at the idea of prostitution becoming a marketable skill trade.

    I commend you ‘Whatever’ for your very indepth analysis of the onslaught of considerations that would need to be made if/when looking at protitution as a taxable profession.

    The thought of it actually brought me to giggles at the ludicrous nature of it. It reminded me of that essay written in during the industrial revolution when people were starving to death in England so the writer sarcastically suggested that people eat babies because they were a cheap and easy resource.

    I push for pouring the money we would spend on this immense legal battle and the onslaught of necessary new soical programs necessary if it was approved to be spent on a program promoting CLEAN LIVING! Stop putting bandaids on the disease.

    Let’s help Canada climb out of the gutter rather than mask the decay.

  • Adam Gorley says:

    I absolutely agree that this issue extends far beyond health and safety–what issue doesn’t?

    You raise many good points, and if the workers win the day in this case and prostitution becomes decriminalized, clearly that would only be the beginning of a long process of legal amendments.

    Personally, my concern is for the health and safety of sex-trade workers–now.

    If what is “right” is preventing Canadians from entering the industry in the first place, then that will take many many years of education and alternative job creation; but in the mean time, what is the best way to protect the vulnerable among us–those who are already in the sex industry or on the verge?

    Without legal status (or within legal limbo), no government body will go near the “profession” of prostitution to protect workers. In theory, at least, clarifying the legal status of prostitutes would compel the government to keep a closer eye on things.

  • whatever says:

    Hmmm.. okay, the root of the discussion is… “Consequently, they want the Court to strike down all the Criminal Code sections pertaining to solicitation, to effectively decriminalize prostitution—as a result, making the sex trade a viable profession in it’s own right.”

    Do we really think when you do a root cause analysis or risk assessment that the underlying issues will be resolves? The underground will go away?

    At what age are you allowed to start working in this profession? How are you going to be trained? What about benefits? Who is your employer? How do you deal with sexual harassment issues? Can they advertise product on television? Will they really pay taxes? How do you monitor that? Looking at it as a job then… what about vacation? Is is okay to rent an office building and have rooms with this happening? Maybe we can give them an outlet between the pedicure/manicure store and the Victoria Secret Store in the mall.

    It was also okay to have comfort women in those countries where the women were treated as part of the sex trade. What about the health and safety of those who are now feeling it’s acceptable to use those services. What about morals – should we not consider common law and the balance of probabilities. Most of our law is derived from morals and our direction as a nation.

    Canadians also have (or maybe used to have – I know my parents did… as they worked this land and took great pride in those who came to Canada for choice and to make this a great country) a strong background in standing up for what is right.

    Definition of a prostitute…

    A person who performs sexual activity for payment

    A person who is perceived as engaging in sexual activity with many people.

    A person who does, or offers to do, an activity for money, despite personal dislike or dishonour.

    We are now going to teach our children that this is an acceptable occupation and not to love yourselves or your body? What about respecting ourselves, working towards the enhancement of family values – sex when the time is right and being a consentual act between committed adults…. hmmm

    Such a huge topic. Are we going to regulate the establishments? Have health and safety inspectors go and make sure the right equipment is being used and due diligence is being considered? If something happens, do they go to the John and let the family know about the possible diseases that may have be contracted… I suppose that could be a benefit to society in the reduction of disease. Weird that this gets considered.

    This is a huge topic. Is this really the way we want our country to go?? Is it really working out that well in other countries?? What about there right to being unionized then?

    Your going to get into the Privacy Act as well. Is a health and safety inspector going to have access to their medical information? What about the employer – employee relationship and bartering… are we going to regulate the prices? Will there be cost of living increases? Or is it going to be a psychological service where the patient/client remains confidential?

    What happens when there are children born out of this arrangement? Do we enforce the DNA tests for the John to assume financial responsibility? There are enough deadbeat dads out there… Do we chase them with the Family Responsibilty Office? Are they entitled to holiday pay? Time and a 1/2 when they work on a holiday?

  • Adam Gorley says:

    Well, it seems we’ve stepped a bit outside the occupational health and safety debate, but that’s no surprise, since this issue is about as controversial as it gets.

    As you know, the question at hand is simply whether it’s fair, given our current legal set-up, to penalize prostitutes for performing legal activities–and in fact to endanger their lives. To me, that sounds unfair. I think two of our Canadian values are compassion and charity, and these values should never let us put another Canadian (or any person) in harm’s way–especially for simply trying to make an honest living.

    I won’t answer the moral question of prostitution, since that’s beyond my reckoning, but I will say that regardless of whether prostitution is legal or not, we must protect every Canadian from harm.

  • Moral delima says:

    This issue shows us where we are headed morally. It is time to give our head a shake. We are becomming a country that has sold out our values. We say it is for rights but the truth is, it is for our lusts/desires, rarely do we think of others when it comes to rights, rights are only for those who are willing to fight for them. Keeping harlotry illeagal will not stop it but may slow it down and salvage some lives. Legalizing this will only promote promiscuity, unfaithfullness, more broken marriages, mixed-up/insecure kids. Hollywood already has cheapend sex and has brained washed this generation to except anything that feels good at the moment. It teaches us that it does not matter how it affects others(our kids, family members, neighbours)it teaches that you are number one, look out for yourself. Our Country was great because of the principles that it was established on. We have declined over the years maybe not as much as some other countries but if we start legalizing harlotry, drugs, child pornography then it will only be a matter of time. We have already legalized abortion, same sex marriage, alcohol and gambling, it is not making Canada better. Lets hold on to what we have left.

  • Whatever says:

    To the comment, ‘let’s make buying sex illegal’. I completely agree. Go after the people who are creating the demand in the market. Demand goes down, supply goes down; basic economics.

    This is what I’m getting to… very well put.

    This is a very huge issue, even if you arrest all the individuals involved there is a whole new can of worms as a society for burden… what about there kids, who funds rehab, it is possible to be rehabilitated, and the bottom-line ugly costs of putting value on life again. How much to invest. Scary, we put a lot of effort into teaching healthy programs such as breastfeeding these days, but do we teach our kids… I mean really teach our kids about the nasty side of human behaviour. The government has decided to double their investments in the criminal jailing (for lack of a better word). But is this really the solution?

    Anyway, I have to agree with you. Legalizing this will never solve the problem. Keeping “these people” in a database where they pay taxes, isn’t going to solve it either… there are way to many underlying socioecomic issues and root causes/problems that turn people into this line of work.

  • Concerned n' Resolute says:

    I’m not sure whether to be more concerned about the issue or the responses from people on this issue. Legalizing prostitution is not a not a gender specific ‘whatever’ issue and treating it as such will send a message to Canada’s youth that, like Alcohol, Cigarette’s and Gambling, sex too is simply a right of passage into an adult world and a quick way to make a few bucks – with no consequences. We are forgetting the vast majority of sex trade workers that really do need to be protected here. Children. The average age for girls to get into prostitution is 15. 15 on average; meaning its starts in Jr. High! And age 17 for boys; except we’ll never really know that for sure because that side of prostitution is vastly underground and under-reported. And do you know who’s exploiting them? Their peers. Other teenagers pimping off their friends because it rakes in a whole lot more cash than part-time at Tim Horton’s. Why would they give up a job that pays hundreds a night for one that pays $8.00/hr.

    To the person saying, ‘give them the jobs all the foreign workers are coming to Canada for’. Please. Open your eyes to another issue. Most of those foreign workers have much more advanced educations than most of our Canadian population. They have to take low paying jobs because we the Canadian people will not provide them the opportunity to do what they are actually qualified to do. I invite you to sit back and take a walk in their shoes in your mind (or in real life). I bet that most Canadians wouldn’t fair very well outside a protected resort compound in their in their home countries trying to find work. Fortunately they would be a lot kinder and treat us with more compassion and respect than we do to them. I digress…

    To the comment, ‘let’s make buying sex illegal’. I completely agree. Go after the people who are creating the demand in the market. Demand goes down, supply goes down; basic economics. Also I think pimping should be a punishable offense; thus making brothels legal to work in but illegal to run. And like Sweden, if prostitution is then exported hopefully we, like Sweden, will set an example to the rest of the world about how to deal with it and let them follow our lead. Let’s take action Canada. We burned down the White House we can take this down too.

    And please know that pimps are not gender specific. There are many women exploiting other men and women here. Wives can be abusive to husbands, molest children, run and be a part of gangs, fight on the front lines of an army…

  • Whatever says:

    Why not make it a career objective and start incorporating it into home ec.? Lol If the problem is abuse by “bad” men, then fix the problem, don’t put a bandaid on it. Sorry, just frustrated with the male sex dominated society. I’m sure women didn’t push/encourage these women into selling their bodies. I’m all for the aspect of finding a way to promote healthier people and lifestyles, but I really don’t think this is going to work. It’s also okay for mail order brides when the wemon in your country aren’t “behaving” the way to fit your needs. I guess I speak out of fear. This would just get more pressure on those teenage girls that are already bucking for there independance. I’ve had friends in high school that travelled and died on this path and this would have gave more fuel to the you can’t stop me fire. We need to continue to promote healthy relationships and instill values, is this really the way to go? I just venting, and maybe I’m alone on this, but there has to be a better way.

  • Not enough says:

    It seems that decriminalizing prostitution may actually contribute to better protection of these workers. However, Canada may also want to consider approaches like the one in Sweden that addresses the demand and mainly the male side of the equation. When women disproportionately work as prostitutes and suffer abuse when compared to their male counterparts, this certainly constitutes a form of violence against women in society. It is my understanding that in Sweden, this issue has been addressed by decriminalizing the “sale of sex”, while criminalizing the “purchase of sex”. Such an approach in Canada may actually contribute to a more equal and equitable society free from violence against women. At the same time however, it may actually “export” the problem/demand overseas, which apparently has been the case for Sweden….it’s a difficult issue to resolve….

  • Whatever says:

    Wow, these types of behaviours that still keep getting attention, it’s so frustrating. What’s next, illegal porn, like the list could go on. Wake up people, the charter wasn’t made for this. AND, regulate how – give them employee numbers and benefits? This is aweful, society needs to go back to the day of not complaining and actually doing something about inappropriate behaviours. Make them get the jobs that the immigrants seem to need to come and do cause no one else will. Kick your kids off the couch and stop spoiling them. Stop fantisizing this behaviour… oh, gezz I’m just going to stop here…. I know this is not what we are fighting for now in Iraque and not what my forefathers fought for.

  • Whatever says:

    Are you kidding me? Why don’t we just legalize heroin, it’s been practiced since the dawn of the days too!