Public Opinion on Prostitution Law Reform in Canada

By Lowman, John; Louie, Christine | Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Public Opinion on Prostitution Law Reform in Canada


Lowman, John, Louie, Christine, Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice


One of the most controversial issues currently facing Canadians concerns the legal status of consensual adult prostitution. (2) Despite general agreement that the current prostitution laws are "unacceptable" (Report of the Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws 2006: 86) and with numerous calls for their wholesale revision, dating back to 1985 (Fraser Committee report 1985), politicians have been unable to agree on what direction law reform should take (Lowman 2011). At the heart of the impasse is their disagreement over the degree to which consensual adult prostitution should be prohibited, if at all. The ensuing research note describes public opinion about the various models of prostitution law currently under debate.

Two models of prohibition have been advanced:

1. The conservative version would criminalize both the buying and selling of sexual services and any third-party profit from prostitution. This is the law in the United States, with the exception of parts of Nevada.

2. The radical-feminist version--the "Nordic model"--would criminalize sex buying and third-party profit from prostitution, while sex selling would be legal on the grounds that the seller is a victim of male violence against women. In 1999 Sweden was the first country to adopt demand-side prohibition.

Although they are often conflated, two models of legal prostitution have been advanced:

1. Legalization entails the specific regulation and licensing of consensual adult prostitution in brothels or other venues, combined with various criminal prohibitions. For example, in Nevada prostitution is a criminal offence apart from in 10 rural counties where brothel prostitution is permitted and regulated.

2. Decriminalization would remove all references to adult prostitution from the Criminal Code. Prostitution would be regulated with generic business and other civil laws rather than creating a specific system of prostitution regulation and licensing. In 2003 New Zealand decriminalized prostitution.

Prostitution law reform in Canada gained a renewed sense of urgency in September 2010, when the Superior Court of Justice for Ontario struck down the Criminal Code sections prohibiting communicating in public for the purpose of buying or selling sex (s 213), bawdy houses (s 210), and living on the avails of prostitution of another person (s 212.(1)(j)) on the grounds that they violate several Charter rights, including a prostitute's right to security of the person (Bedford v Canada 2010). (3) Should this decision be upheld, the government will be forced either to criminalize the sale and/or the purchase of sex or empower provinces and/or municipalities to regulate consensual adult prostitution indirectly or directly.

Should Bedford v Canada be upheld, claims about public opinion will likely come to play an important part in the ensuing debate about how to revise prostitution laws. Indeed, claims about public opinion on prostitution already did play a part in that case.

In its quest to convince the Ontario Superior Court to uphold the impugned provisions, the Christian Legal Fellowship, REAL Women of Canada, and the Catholic Civil Rights League (CLF)--a coalition of Christian organizations that was granted intervener status in Bedford--claimed that public opinion surveys establish that the majority of Canadians believe that prostitution is "unacceptable" and should be prohibited. More recently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asserted that the majority of Canadians support the prostitution laws that the Ontario Superior Court struck down, hence his government's decision to appeal that ruling.

The research note that follows evaluates these claims by reviewing the findings of seven public opinion surveys dating back to 1984 (Peat Marwick 1984; Environics 1986, 1995, 2005; Angus Reid 2009, 2010, 2011) to ascertain the extent to which Canadians believe that consensual adult prostitution should be prohibited. …

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