5 min

Conservative MP and critics squabble over prostitution

Smith says she's not going on a 'moral rampage,' but she paints a bleak picture of decriminalization

Conservative MP Joy Smith Credit:

In response to Xtra‘s story about her “Swedish Model” proposal to criminalize buying sex in Canada, Conservative MP Joy Smith launched broadsides at her political opponents in a press release.

Smith declined an interview with Xtra for our Sept 24 article, but she approached us after its publication.

“It was quite surprising because their own parties were sitting on the Status of Women committee, and the Status of Women committee endorsed the Swedish model,” Smith tells Xtra. “So basically, they’re speaking against their own policies, their own party, so I thought that was quite unusual.”

Smith refers to a 2007 Status of Women committee report that looked specifically at trafficking. In a dissenting opinion, the Bloc Québécois found the committee’s “recommendations on this matter to be hasty and insufficiently documented.” The Bloc also wrote that the “report makes value judgments on prostitution and is condescending at times.”

Just months earlier, in 2006, an all-party committee examining Canada’s sex laws found no consensus on prostitution, except that the status quo is unacceptable and needs further study.

While speaking with Xtra, Smith paints a bleak picture of countries that have decriminalized prostitution.

“The other issue is in the Netherlands, in Australia, in New Zealand, in the Scottish Parliament, put together a report on whether or not it’s helpful to repeal or just to legalize everything. It turned out it wasn’t good,” she says. “What they found out was, basically, in those countries, there was an increase in brothels, an increase in violence against women, and an increase in foreign women coming from other countries, and that’s an indicator right there about trafficking, because they make money off them.”

But government reports contradict Smith’s claims. In 2008, New Zealand’s Prostitution Law Review Committee was “confident that the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off under the PRA [Prostitution Reform Act] than they were previously.” The report noted that in the five years following decriminalization, the “sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalization of the sex industry have not been experienced.”

Smith’s critics are not moved by her responses.

Liberal justice critic Marlene Jennings says her party supports sex workers’ “rights to protection, their rights to exercise the sex trade, and the rights of women and children who are exploited and vulnerable to being exploited by prostitution and by human trafficking in Canada — which is not the same human trafficking as you find internationally.”

Jennings points out that while there is prostitution related to human trafficking in Canada, the overwhelming amount of prostitution has no connection to trafficking.

“I don’t want to attack the work that she does,” Jennings says. “I think that it’s laudable, but I don’t think that it deals with the whole picture, so I would ask her not to attack the work that I’m doing.”

NDP MP Libby Davies concurs and notes that the 2007 Status of Women report was largely about the issue of trafficking.

“Ms Smith, I think, is deliberately trying to mix up the two issues [of prostitution and trafficking],” says Davies. “The Conservatives do that deliberately because they like to frame it as a trafficking issue. We can deal with trafficking issues. There are serious issues around trafficking.

“The Conservatives are refusing to acknowledge the massive evidence that was brought to that [Ontario] court case that resulted in a very significant decision that struck down these laws that the judge considered to be harmful, and I would agree with that decision.”

Smith points to a report from Sweden that estimates the number of women involved in street prostitution dropped by 30 to 50 percent between 1999 and 2004. The report also estimates the numbers of women in prostitution dropped from 2,500 in 1999, when the laws were enacted, to 1,500 in 2002.

Davies counters with testimony heard by the 2006 sex laws committee that showed mixed views from Sweden itself.

University of Ottawa criminologist Christine Bruckert also has issues with some of the reports that Smith quotes. She says that the data showing increased trafficking in countries where sex work has been legalized is far from clear.

“By definition, trafficking and sex work is subterranean, so I’m always mystified where this data comes from,” says Bruckert. “When you look at where the data comes from, it usually comes from police stats and other really questionable sources.”

Bruckert points to several other reports, including one by the advocacy group FIRST that show there’s been no reduction to trafficking in Sweden.

“There’s this definition now of any woman who is in the sex industry as somehow trafficked, and what that means is that it’s a very paternalistic and patronizing discourse that rides over what sex workers themselves are saying. And we have sex workers all over the country saying ‘This is a choice I’ve made,’ so I’m mystified how somebody can decide over those voices that ‘No, you’re actually being coerced, and actually being victimized.'”

While Smith pointed to the group Sex Trade 101 as an organization that endorses the Swedish model, Bruckert says that while there may be a diversity of voices within the sex worker community, the overwhelming majority do not endorse the model.

“I have to say that we acknowledge their concerns, but one voice does not outweigh all the others, and to do so is incredibly patronizing and paternalistic,” Bruckert says. “The fact that you find one group that supports your agenda does not give you the right to dismiss all of the other voices and all of the other research that undermines your perspective.”

The overwhelming message from all sides, however, is that everyone is concerned about the real issues that sex workers face.

“It’s not about going on a moral rampage,” Smith says. “It’s about making sure that these innocent victims are safe, because up until this point, prostitutes, cross-dressers, everyone like that have just been pounced upon. They’ve been victimized.”

While she does acknowledge that there are sex workers who make the choice, her concern is for those who become involved that are underage and who feel they have no other choice.

“I don’t know what the reasons are for people coming forward like that, but for the better part of a decade, I’ve worked with sex workers and victimized people, and I am absolutely convinced without a doubt that this is so wrong,” Smith says. “Not only that, with what’s happened here in Ontario, it’s taken away any tools that the police have, so it’s just a free-for-all. This can’t continue.”

Bruckert says she’s not denying that violence occurs in the sex industry.

“What we’re arguing is that any business that is kept in the shadows, that’s where abuse is more likely to occur, that as soon as you bring something into the open, and you give people the tools to fight that abuse, that’s when it’s going to decrease,” says Bruckert. “If you want to help people, then you do not saddle them with a criminal record. You do not push them underground. You do not deny them the ability to work in the safety of their own home.

“We’re on the same side. It’s just that we see the solution quite differently.”