Attitudes, Beliefs, and Knowledge of Prostitution and the Law in Canada

By Morton, Heather; Klein, Caroline et al. | Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Attitudes, Beliefs, and Knowledge of Prostitution and the Law in Canada


Morton, Heather, Klein, Caroline, Gorzalka, Boris B., Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice


The legal status of prostitution-related activities recently came into the public spotlight after three of Canada's prostitution laws were deemed unconstitutional and struck down by an Ontario Superior Court judge (Bedford v Canada 2010). Both the Ontario and federal governments subsequently appealed this decision, and the future of the laws regarding communicating for the purposes of prostitution, keeping a common bawdy house, and living off the avails of prostitution are uncertain.

Potential changes to these laws raise questions about Canadians' opinions with respect to prostitution and its legal status. Prostitution is technically legal in Canada; however, several laws make it difficult to engage in prostitution without breaking the law. For example, under the bawdy-house laws (Criminal Code, s 210 and s 211), it is illegal to keep or be found within a common bawdy house, defined in section 197 as "a place that is kept, occupied, or is resorted to by one or more persons for the purposes of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency." This law makes it illegal for anyone to engage regularly in prostitution within the same establishment. As a result, it is illegal for prostitutes to work out of their homes, in brothels, or in massage parlours. In conjunction with a law that prohibits communicating in a public place (i.e., on the streets) for the purposes of prostitution (Criminal Code, s 213), these laws make it difficult for people to engage in prostitution legally. The Criminal Code further prohibits living on the avails of prostitution as well as procuring individuals into prostitution (Criminal Code, s. 212). This also affects the legality of indoor prostitution venues, which involve profiting from others' involvement in prostitution. Finally, it is also illegal to buy or attempt to buy sexual services from those who are under the age of 18 (Criminal Code, s. 212[4]). The average age of entry into prostitution is between the ages of 14 and 16 (Koverola, Nadon, and Schluderman 1998); therefore, many enter prostitution at an age in which it is illegal to do so.

The paradox that prostitution is technically legal but difficult to conduct in a legal manner may result in confusion about Canada's prostitution laws. This may be exacerbated by the fact that prostitutes are clearly visible on the streets and known indoor-prostitution venues appear to stay open without apparent legal action or consequences, potentially leading the public to believe that soliciting, bawdy-house, and pimping laws do not exist. Moreover, the lines dividing legal associated activities, such as stripping, and illegal aspects of prostitution are becoming increasingly blurred (Farley 2004). For instance, in many strip clubs customers can legally purchase lap dances in which strippers grind their genitals against customers while wearing little or no clothing. The similarities between providing or paying for this activity and providing or paying for sexual services within an indoor-prostitution venue may lead some people to believe that the latter activities are legal in Canada.

As a result, a significant proportion of Canadians may be unaware of the actual nature of prostitution laws in Canada, potentially leading some individuals to engage in prostitution activities with no awareness of the illegality of their behaviours. In support of this, Wortley, Fischer, and Webster (2002) found that 17% of Ontario men who had been arrested under the communication law in Ontario were apparently unaware that it was illegal to talk to a prostitute about buying sex.

With respect to attitudes relating to the legal status of prostitution, Wortley et al. (2002) found that almost half of their sample 'reported believing that prostitution should be illegal--a curious finding given that the sample comprised men who had been arrested for soliciting sex. The participants in this study may have been influenced by the fact that the study was being conducted as part of an offender-diversion program. …

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