Decriminalizing sex work would make sex workers safer
It is both legal and dangerous to sell sex in Canada. One factor that makes sex workers vulnerable to violence is how the government regulates sex work. While selling sex is legal, buying sexual services and assisting in the sale or purchase of sexual services is not. This regulatory approach stigmatizes sex work and thereby increases sex workers’ risk. Fully decriminalizing the purchase and sale of sexual services—a demand supported by sex workers and 150 human rights groups—would help reduce the risk of violence.
Canada’s current approach to regulating sex work is often called the Nordic model. It assumes sex work is socially undesirable and that the demand for sexual services can be extinguished by sanctioning clients. The impact of the Nordic model on sex workers’ safety is complicated.
Sex workers and authors Juno Mac and Molly Smith note that sex workers typically have a greater need to sell sexual services (e.g., to put food on the table) than buyers do to purchase it. Criminalizing clients can reduce demand. This, in turn, forces sex workers to take on clients they might otherwise refuse or meet them in circumstances that heighten the risk of violence. Criminalizing those who could provide assistance to sex workers working safely (e.g., security staff, call services, drivers) also increases the risk of violence for sex workers.
In theory, the Nordic model is supposed to result in sex workers finding other sources of income. (In Nordic countries, this model is paired with a more complete social safety net than is presently available in Canada). In Canada, “straight” jobs are often unavailable (that’s why sex workers sell sex) or unworkable (e.g., due to childcare or health issues).
Sex workers can also be reluctant to access existing income support programs for fear of triggering the interest of other government agencies, such as children’s services or the tax department. For example, some sex workers’ reluctance to access federal income supports during COVID-19 reflects their concerns about becoming visible to the state.
Consequently, sex workers say that what Canada’s laws do is pressure sex workers to work less safely and render illegal many of the strategies sex workers can use to make themselves less vulnerable to violence. These laws are presently due for a five-year review.
Fully decriminalizing sex work—where any adult can purchase sexual services—would allow sex workers to work more safely (e.g., in cooperatives, in safer locations, with access to security and other business services). Decriminalization would also lower the barriers faced by sex workers wishing to access state services, such as medical care and income support services.
New Zealand decriminalized most sex work in 2003. Decriminalization is not a panacea. Sex workers still report facing stigma and violence, especially racialized, migrant, and trans sex workers. They still cannot necessarily access law enforcement protection safely. And many other laws and policies (e.g., zoning, licensing, advertising) still make life difficult for sex workers.
And, where sex work occurs in the context of an employment relationship, sex workers are still subject to the usual indignities and exploitation that can be found in any workplace. They may also still be subject to the abuses sex workers tend to experience in employment relationships specifically because they’re sex workers, and which occur in the sex industry under all regulatory frameworks.
But decriminalization does appear to result in better working conditions for sex workers. It also offers more accessible pathways to different work (e.g., through income support programs). If combined with a more fulsome social safety net, it might result in a significant reduction in sex work overall. New Zealand’s experience offers useful guidance about how the government can meaningfully reduce the risk of violence faced by sex workers—one driven by data rather than by stigma.