The Supreme Court has given Canadians a year to figure out how they want to deal with prostitution and so far the answers have ranged from nothing to police crackdowns and new criminal laws. Photo by Michael Swan.

Catholics recognize polarized debate on prostitution

  • February 21, 2014

The Supreme Court has given Canadians a year to figure out how they want to deal with prostitution and so far the answers have ranged from nothing to police crackdowns and new criminal laws.

“There’s quite a polarized debate in Canada around this,” said Sr. Sue Wilson of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada’s office for systemic justice. “There are insights from both ends, from both polls, that need to be included in any legislation moving forward.”

The 91,000 women in the Catholic Women’s League know what they want lawmakers to do. The CWL has officially opted for the Nordic model, which designates women for sale as victims and men who buy sex as criminals.

“This is a subject that concerns all women, not just the women who are being trafficked, not just the women who are being victimized through prostitution,” said CWL national chairperson of legislation Anne Gorman. “Those are potentially our children, potentially our sisters, potentially our neighbours.”

But there’s no unanimity on giving sex trade customers a criminal record, points out Wilson, who has been working on human trafficking issues for years.

Not all women in the sex trade consider themselves victims or are ready to be treated as victims by the criminal justice system and social services. While the Nordic model has been praised for shifting the focus on to men who pay for sex, it has been criticized for continuing to label women in prostitution and push them away, Wilson said.

“Legislation needs to function in a way that doesn’t further marginalize or stigmatize women who are choosing to meet their basic material needs by working in the sex trade,” she said.

Just passing a new criminal law won’t suddenly give prostituted women more options in the real economy. If there’s going to be exit strategies, it’s going to involve spending money on social services and education programs that are open to all poor and marginalized women, said Wilson.

“It would be much more helpful for the government to really focus on funding for the social agencies that support sex trade workers and others who are living on the margins,” she said. “As well as a whole host of literacy, job training, skills training opportunities to move people into better opportunities so they can make choices to leave the sex trade. To me, that’s the most pro-active thing the government can do.”

The CWL doesn’t disagree with Wilson on that.

“I don’t think anybody would disagree (or think) that support for social programs would ever be in error,” Gorman said.

In terms of both preventing women from falling into prostitution and helping them move on, “education is the great equalizer,” said Gorman.

Nor is Gorman saying that making men stand before a judge, admit their guilt and go to jail will suddenly solve every problem.

“This is not a panacea, but the Nordic model is one model out there that seems to have shown promise,” she said.

People have become too focused on the criminal code and they too easily equate prostitution with human trafficking, said Wilson.

“The sex trade question is challenging us as a society to deal with the lack of employment options, the lack of decent work options, many low income women experience,” she said.

Wilson would like to see Ottawa update and nuance its human trafficking laws so the law deals more effectively with both sexual exploitation and labour exploitation.

“I think that would be sufficient to deal with the coercive exploitation within the sex trade,” she said.

So far the CWL is finding support from both Conservative and Liberal MPs for the Nordic model, but has had less success teasing out party positions. The Conservatives have dropped no clues about what legislation the government is working on, said Gorman.

“It’s early days,” she said.

Gorman is urging all CWL members to write to their MPs and Justice Minister Peter MacKay in support of the CWL’s Resolution 2012.01, “Criminalization of the Purchasing of Sexual Services.”

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