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Hey Sailor! What Canada Can Teach the U.S. About Prostitution

Just as Canada has provided us with a model for affordable health care, our neighbors to the north may also be leading the way on another key issue: prostitution and reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Just as Canada has provided us with a model for affordable health care, our neighbors to the north may also be leading the way on another key issue: reducing the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitting diseases.

A few months ago, a federal appeals court in Canada overturned laws against prostitution in the province of Ontario, arguing that criminalizing sex work increased the risks of violence against women and made it harder for them to practice safe sex.

The federal government is appealing the ruling, which essentially legalizes brothels in Ontario and allows prostitutes to hire bodyguards. Legal observers say the Supreme Court of Canada could take up the case as early as this fall.

The court based on its ruling on new research showing that laws against prostitution actually increase the likelihood of physical and sexual violence against sex workers and the chance they may spread sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS. For example, one study published in Social Science and Medicine last year found that criminalizing indoors sex work forced Canadian women to sell sex on the streets, making it more difficult for them to refuse clients who didn't want to wear condoms (which can prevent the spread of disease).

Likewise, another study published in the British Medical Journal in 2009 found that of 237 street walkers in British Columbia who were forced to sell sex outdoors (because they couldn't see clients at their residences), more than half (57 per cent) experienced physical or sexual violence in an 18-month period.

As Dr. Kate Shannon, lead author of the study and a researcher at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said: "These women continue to be pushed to work in isolated spaces, with limited access to housing and drug treatment which further compounds their risk of being physically assaulted or raped."

Indeed, much of what people perceive as bad or dangerous about prostitution has to do with the fact that it is illegal. Sex workers have little protection when clients are violent or abusive, and they have no recourse from police officers who coerce them into providing free sex (in exchange for not being arrested). Research shows that decriminalizing or legalizing sex work actually reduces the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. In the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legal since 2000 and decriminalized since the 1970s, the spread of HIV is the lowest in the developed world.

Legalizing prostitution also reduces violence against women and cuts down on the trafficking of illegal immigrants and children. In fact, a major study done seven years after prostitution was legalized in the Netherlands found the number of illegal migrants working in the sex trade there had decreased, as had the number of under-age workers.

"Business owners keep a close eye on whether prostitutes have the required documents," concluded A. L. Daalder, lead author of the 2007 study. The researchers found no evidence of under-age prostitution in the non-licensed sector and "only rarely found" minors in licensed brothels.

In the Netherlands, prostitutes work with law enforcement to target violent predators and traffickers. Decriminalizing or legalizing adult prostitution in the U.S. would allow law enforcement to focus their efforts on violent crime and on apprehending pimps who traffic in teenage runaways and illegal immigrants.

The Canadian federal appeals court has already moved in this direction. In its landmark ruling in March, it amended the law against pimping to target only those who live off of prostitution "in circumstances of exploitation." In other words, sex workers in Ontario can hire pimps to protect them as long as there is no evidence that the pimps have coerced the women into the sex trade or are exploiting them.

The Canadian research also found an excessive use of force by police in enforcing laws against prostitution, making sex workers afraid of going to the police to report crimes. Contrast that with what happened in Cartagena, Columbia, where prostitution is legal: When a Secret Service agent refused to pay a prostitute what he had promised her, the woman was able to summon a local police officer who took her side. That would never have happened in the United States.

Criminalizing prostitution also makes it difficult for addicted street walkers to access drug treatment, the Canadian study found. Since drug addiction increases the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, making prostitution legal and providing sex workers with access to health care and safe supportive housing could reduce the spread of HIV and other diseases, the British Columbia researchers said.

They concluded that Canada still has a long way to go toward providing the kind of housing and public health services that could reduce sexually transmitted diseases and violence against sex workers. But when it comes to changing archaic and regressive laws against prostitution, our northern neighbor is light years ahead of us.

Alison Bass, an award-winning journalist and author of Side Effects, is writing a book about prostitution. She can be reached at


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