As part of her proposal to combat human trafficking, Conservative MP Joy Smith recommends that Canada criminalize the buying of sex in a manner modelled on Sweden’s prostitution laws.
“Personally, I like the Swedish model and we can adapt many concepts from that model concerning the demand for the sex trade,” Smith told Postmedia News last week.
The “Swedish model” came into effect in 1999 under a rationale that buying sex was a form of violence against women, which could be eliminated by reducing demand for sexual services. Similar laws have since been adopted by Norway and Iceland.
Smith’s proposal, however, is met with skepticism by Canadian opposition parties.
“Typical Conservative,” says Liberal justice critic Marlene Jennings. “Simplistic, not based on evidence, not based on fact.”
“Human trafficking and prostitution are two different things, and that’s what the Conservatives like to mix up,” Jennings says. “They like to mix it up together into the same bowl so that they can confuse people and they can make outrageous statements.”
“It makes me very discouraged — it really does,” says NDP MP Libby Davies, who was part of a parliamentary committee looking into sex workers before the Conservatives came to power. “They deliberately choose to avoid what is required, which is a sensitive and intelligent debate about the sex work laws in this country.”
Davies points out that there is plenty of evidence to show that the “Swedish model” doesn’t work, because it drives sex work underground, which places sex workers into vulnerable, high-risk situations where they can’t come forward to report threats.
University of Ottawa criminologist Christine Bruckert agrees and adds that pushing the industry underground makes sex workers more likely to align with people who they feel can support them, such as pimps.
“If you really want to address sex workers, if you really want to make things better for sex workers, give sex workers rights,” Bruckert says.
Smith’s proposal suggests that “many frontline organizations” (unnamed in the report) have found that “sex trade workers are underage victims of forced exploitation or human trafficking” and that targeting buyers will reduce the demand for sex work.
Bruckert dismisses these arguments. “It doesn’t even make sense. It’s a law that’s aimed at abolishing the sex industry.
“The trafficking thing is a smokescreen,” Bruckert says. “There’s no conceptual link between the Swedish model and reducing trafficking, and there’s absolutely no evidence coming out of Sweden that it has actually reduced pimping or trafficking.”
NDP justice critic Joe Comartin also feels that the link between human trafficking and sex work is one that needs to be carefully managed.
“The problem we have of always equating human trafficking with the sexual abuse area is that, in fact, we have a good deal of human trafficking in the manufacturing sector, in agriculture, hospitality,” Comartin says. “All of those industries have a history of abuse going on of the workers in those areas.”
There is also a disconnect between Smith’s proposal and the way it would work with current Canadian laws. While it is not illegal to buy or sell sex for money in Canada, a number of Criminal Code provisions make it almost impossible to practice sex work safely or legally.
“What I think she wants to do is layer the Swedish model, which is an abolitionist model, over our model, which is a prohibitionist model,” says Bruckert.
Smith declined an interview request by Xtra, and her staff directed us to the report on her website.
Bruckert adds that no sex worker rights organization in the world supports the Swedish model, but they instead endorse the New Zealand model of decriminalization.
“That has reduced the harms of sex work,” Bruckert says.
Those harms are especially an issue in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in the wake of the Picton tragedy, says Davies.
“Their complaints were never taken seriously, even when they went missing,” Davies says.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May agrees. “[Sex workers] need to know that they can safely go to law enforcement from the threats of physical harm. We need to go in the direction of protecting their rights, ensuring that they have access to appropriate medical care, access to police and other security and law enforcement authorities.
“This is a disastrous and dangerous idea, and it goes in the wrong direction altogether.”
May adds that the Green Party as a whole is debating the policy on sex workers, given that they are unsure about legalization, but have not found a model they are comfortable following.
Davies also draws a link between this suggestion and the Conservatives’ recently making the Criminal Code offence of keeping a common bawdy house a “serious crime.”
“By increasing the levels of penalties, and saying that three or two more individuals can now constitute ‘organized crime,’ and that somehow they’ve solved the problem they think they’re dealing with, is just absolute foolishness.”
May goes one step further. “Since the Conservative government has committed to building $9 billion in new prisons, and the crime rate is going down, I guess they want to create some new crimes to fill the prisons.”