Debates surrounding the criminalization of sex work in Canada were sparked after the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down three major provisions in the country’s prostitution laws.

In the ruling handed out Friday, the Supreme Court said the following laws placed sex workers in serious danger:

  • Laws prohibiting keeping a brothel
  • Living on the avails of prostitution
  • Communicating in public for purposes of prostitution

The court said that because prostitution itself is legal in Canada, the three provisions outlined in the ruling made it extremely difficult for prostitutes to safely engage in their work, and prevented sex workers from taking steps to protect themselves. 

The Supreme Court ruling will be suspended for one year until Parliament decides if it wants to amend the laws.

While Minister of Canadian Heritage Shelly Glover said that the Harper government intends to propose stricter criminal laws aimed at protecting vulnerable sex workers, supporters of the ruling say the decision is a significant move towards creating safer working conditions for prostitutes.

Here’s a look at two different prostitution models that have been brought up in debates.

The Nordic model (also known as the ‘Swedish model’)

In 1998, the Swedish parliament passed “The Protection of Women”: a law reform penalizing the demand for commercial sex, while decriminalizing the sex worker. Its goals are to curb the demand for commercial sex, and to promote gender equality.

The model was first adopted by Sweden in 1999, and later adopted by Norway and Iceland. It criminalizes situations where money, drugs, gifts, or other forms of compensation are exchanged for sexual services.

In 2004, the Swedish police and the Ministry of Justice released a report on the state of prostitution since the 1998 reform, and found that:

  • There were fewer sex clients, but a larger proportion were dangerous
  • Sex workers had less time to assess clients
  • The prices for sexual services had fallen
  • More clients were ready to pay for unprotected sex
  • Sex workers felt that their risk of violence had increased

The report also brought to light a new form of crime that had arisen: women posing as sex workers to rob clients (who would fear reporting the robbery to the police for fear of being charged with attempting to purchase sexual services).

The New Zealand model

In 2003, New Zealand passed the Prostitution Reform Act, meant to decriminalize certain activities related to prostitution. It was also created to:

  • Protect sex workers from exploitation, and safeguard their human rights
  • Promote the safety, health and welfare of sex workers
  • Create a prostitution framework that is conducive to public health
  • Prohibit the use in prostitution of persons under 18

The Act defines “sex worker” as “a person who provides commercial sexual services,” and makes it legal for people to enter into contracts for sexual services.

Specific provisions are also found in the Act, which are intended to minimize the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and to protect the health of the sex worker and the client. The Act states that every operator of a business of prostitution must “take all reasonable steps” to ensure that no sexual services will be provided unless a “prophylactic sheath or other appropriate barrier” is used.

In 2005, a man was convicted of an offence under the Act for taking his condom off during sexual intercourse without the knowledge of the sex worker.

Comparing the two models

In a 2005 document released by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the organization stated that New Zealand’s model was “much more respectful of the autonomy, dignity and human rights of sex workers” compared to the Swedish laws.

The organization highlighted evidence that the Swedish law had not eliminated prostitution, and that it had resulted in more dangerous conditions for vulnerable women sex workers.

“The New Zealand model offers a better example of a reform that respects, protects and fulfills the human rights of sex workers and holds more promise for better protecting their health,” the organization wrote.