More than half of Canadians surveyed think purchasing sexual services should be illegal, but selling them should not be a criminal offence, according to a new government survey.
An online survey conducted by the Department of Justice to gauge the public’s attitude toward prostitution received more than 31,000 responses after a Supreme Court ruling struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws last December.
However, the top court gave Parliament one year to come up with new legislation.
Survey results show that most people favoured punishing those who solicited or profited from prostitution rather than prostitutes themselves.
About two-thirds of the responses (66%) said selling sexual services should not be a criminal offence. Meanwhile, 56 per cent of the responses said that purchasing sexual services should be illegal.
The majority (62%) also agreed that profiting from the prostitution of an adult should be a crime, though the survey noted that many in agreement thought “those who provide sexual services should be able to hire bodyguards and drivers, but that exploitive relationships (e.g. pimps) should be illegal.”
The survey also indicated what limitations people would like to see on the sale of sexual services.
Many responded with concerns about health inspections of brothels and medical testing for those providing services. Others mentioned that they didn’t want prostitution taking place in residential areas, or that they wanted activities confined to brothels.
Ilona Dougherty, co-founder of youth political engagement group Apathy is Boring, said while she was surprised the Harper government asked for public input on the contentious issue, she didn’t think the results would be influential.
“I think the Conservatives are going to really look to try to minimize the debate as much as possible, and really, the likelihood is we’ll probably end up with something similar to the laws that we had before,” she said during a discussion panel on CTV News Channel.
The consultation, launched in February, came in response to a Supreme Court ruling that declared three of Canada’s prostitution provisions unconstitutional: keeping or being found in a bawdy house; living on the avails of prostitution; and communicating in public for the purpose of prostitution.
While prostitution itself is legal in Canada, the prohibition of most activities related to sex work creates an unsafe environment for sex workers, the Supreme Court ruled.
In striking down the provisions, the court gave the government one year to draft a legislative response before the ruling came into effect. Justice Minister Peter MacKay said Monday the survey responses would be taken into consideration.
“The results of the online consultation today will be taken into account in our Government's legislative response to prostitution,” he said in a tweet.
But at least one Toronto group is questioning the legitimacy of the survey. The survey was self-selecting, meaning the pool of respondents was made up of only those who chose to participate, rather than randomly selected individuals.
In a statement, Maggie's Toronto Sex Workers’ Action Project (TSWAP) said this allowed people to complete the survey multiple times, potentially slanting the data.
“The numbers could easily be skewed to support the Conservative government’s agenda to introduce legislation that would criminalize sex work,” said the group’s executive director Jean McDonald.
Taylor Scollon, a former Liberal strategist, agreed that the unscientific poll shouldn’t be a deciding factor on policy and legislation. Still, he said, the issue needs to be addressed.
“Sex workers in Canada are kept in the dark and subject to violence without recourse. It’s not a good situation for anybody involved,” he said.
But TSWAP said that the country’s sex workers were not adequately consulted in the project.
“I wouldn’t be asked to comment on employment standards in the fishing industry, so it begs the question as to why non-sex workers are considered the best source of information to inform legislation on the sex industry,” sex worker Vanessa D’Allesio said in the statement.
The group said people don’t understand the impact that criminalizing clients and third parties has on sex-worker safety.
“Decriminalization is the only system that will protect sex workers, by ensuring access to labour, legal and human rights,” they said.
On its way to establishing the laws Canada will follow in the future, the government also provided background information for models used in other parts of the world.
The “decriminalization/legalization” model used in countries like the Netherlands tries to reduce the harm caused by prostitution by legalizing and regulating the practice. At the other end of the spectrum is the “prohibition” model used in most of the U.S., which prohibits all purchasing and selling of sexual services.
The third option – which seems most in line with the Canadian views expressed in the survey – is called the “abolition” or “Nordic” model, and is used in countries like Sweden and Norway. This system seeks to abolish prostitution by punishing those who use and exploit sex workers, but decriminalizes prostitution and assists the victims of sexual exploitation through programs.
With files from CTV's Omar Sachedina in Ottawa