Open letter to Justin Trudeau & Jody Wilson-Raybould: Help us end prostitution in Canada

Protest against Canadian prostitution laws outside the Supreme Court in Ottawa (Image/CP)
Protest against Canadian prostitution laws outside the Supreme Court in Ottawa (Image/CP)

To the Honourable Justin Trudeau
Prime Minister of Canada
and the Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada:

Thank you, first and foremost, for your commitment to reviewing the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act in order to ensure Canada’s prostitution legislation is effective and designed to support the most marginalized among us. We recall, with gratitude, our Prime Minister’s statement naming prostitution as a form of violence against women — it is imperative that men who call themselves allies to women, especially those in positions of power and privilege, understand this.

We are writing to you as members of the global women’s liberation movement and as feminists who worked to ensure Canada’s new legislation would move us closer to equality by targeting the demand for paid sex, fully decriminalizing prostituted people, supporting those who wish to exit the sex industry in a viable way, improving Canada’s relationship to Indigenous peoples, and providing comprehensive preventative social supports so that women and girls are less likely to enter prostitution in the first place.

Our support for Bill C-36 was rooted in an understanding of the sex industry as an extension of Canada’s colonial legacy as well as a system that sees women and girls (particularly marginalized women and girls) as disposable and consumable objects. Due to a long history of colonialism that included imposed patriarchy and capitalism, Indigenous women and girls are overrepresented in prostitution, especially in outdoor street prostitution. The consequences of colonial institutions, such as the Indian Residential School system, has resulted in disproportionate levels of poverty, disability, criminalization, addiction, suicide, and male violence perpetrated against Indigenous women and girls.

Considering this long-standing, institutionalized marginalization, will Canada allow men to continue to exploit these inequalities by allowing pimps and johns to act with impunity? Or uphold and improve the new law, and stand with Indigenous women and girls to create a new culture of respect and care, wherein men are not encouraged to exploit the poverty and inequalities of others? Given the Liberal government’s public commitments toward addressing the crisis of male violence against Indigenous women and girls in a national public inquiry, we need to ensure that the unequal relationship between non-Indigenous men and Indigenous women and girls in Canada in regard to prostitution is also addressed as an issue of colonial violence. Canada’s new legislation is an opportunity, and we are hopeful that the Liberal government will fully decriminalize prostituted persons in all circumstances, provide funding for much-needed exiting services, public education, and preventative social supports to ensure women have a wider range of choices, and every opportunity to thrive in this country.

Feminist groups looked towards various legislative models around the world to find one that would both keep women and girls safe from male violence and help build the kind of society we want to live in — the kind of society women in Canada deserve. We found that neither legalization nor full decriminalization had accomplished this.

In Germany, 55 prostituted women have been murdered since prostitution was legalized in 2002. In the Netherlands, 28 prostituted women have been murdered since the year 2000, when prostitution was legalized. By comparison, since Sweden adopted the Nordic model (which criminalizes pimps and johns, but decriminalizes those who sell sex) in 1999, not a single woman in prostitution there has been murdered by a john.

Studies show that the legalization of prostitution and brothels has been an abject failure. None of the intended goals of this legislation have been met in the countries that experimented with decriminalizing all aspects of the trade. While the ability to register as a prostitute, in order to pay taxes and receive things like health insurance and pension plans, was a key selling point for legalization, only 44 women in Germany have registered to receive benefits since 2002. Legalization has not reduced trafficking or violence against women in prostitution. It has not provided women with safety from violence. Nor has it resulted in less stigmatization of women in the industry.

Since Germany legalized prostitution, it is now estimated that over one million men pay for sex every day, with some two thirds of it’s 400,000 prostitutes coming from out of country. Testimony from women who worked in New Zealand under full decriminalization say that, despite their hopes that the model would offer women more control over their “work,” the opposite has happened. Women stay in prostitution much longer than they want to and it becomes much more difficult for them to leave the industry. Competition means they are expected to service more men a day and engage in higher-risk activities.

Beyond that, legalization encourages men’s objectification and harassment of women. When one woman is for sale, it implies all women are. If one woman can be a sexualized object, all women can be. No class of women should be expected to accept the brunt of men’s abuse because they are poor and need to survive, no woman is less deserving of respect and dignity than any other, and no woman is better-suited to absorb men’s violence or sexual demands than any other.

Before Sweden adopted what’s commonly referred to as the Nordic model (due to its early adoption in Norway, Iceland, and Sweden), the country spent 30 years researching the sex trade, speaking to people in the industry, and looking at the reality of prostitution. Based on the findings, Sweden created a comprehensive model that went beyond only legislation. They criminalized those who were responsible for the abuse and exploitation: the pimps and the johns. Sweden also decriminalized people who sell sex, set up well-funded preventative and exiting services, and retrained police officers so that they viewed prostituted women not as criminals, but as people in need of assistance and protection, focusing on curbing male violence instead.

The result has been a notable decrease in the purchase of sex — while, before the new law, one in eight men paid for sex, as of 2008, that number had gone down to one in 13 and street prostitution in the country has halved. In Sweden’s 2015 State Department report on trafficking, there were only 31 cases of sex trafficking identified in the country. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, trafficking is on the rise — Amsterdam has had to ship in women from Eastern Europe and beyond in order to meet an ever-increasing demand. In 2009, the Government of the Netherlands registered 909 victims of trafficking, an increase from 826 in 2008; in 2014 there were 1,561 potential victims registered, as compared with 1,437 potential victims in 2013. (Authorities did not separate labour and sex trafficking cases in these numbers, but according to the report, about 80 per cent of the victims counted in the 2014 report were sex trafficked.)

We know it is men who are committing the atrocious levels of violence prostituted women live with — the way towards a more egalitarian society begins by standing up to this behaviour, not normalizing and encouraging it.

How we choose to question the system of prostitution determines the solutions we produce. We ask that you investigate critically and thoroughly the impacts prostitution has not only on the women and girls in prostitution, but on all woman and girls, as well as on our society as a whole. We ask that you investigate the ways in which colonial and racist attitudes act as a foundation for prostitution and how Indigenous women and women of colour are harmed by these attitudes and behaviors. We encourage you to ask the questions: Is prostitution a marker of an egalitarian society? What does allowing men to purchase and sell women, to exploit the inequalities of the most marginalized, say about us as a culture, as a country?

We look forward to working with you as you enforce and improve Canada’s prostitution legislation.


Trisha Baptie, prostitution survivor and Founding Member of EVE

Meghan Murphy, Founder and Editor, Feminist Current

Cherry Smiley, Nlaka’pamux and Diné Nations, Co-founder, Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry (IWASI)

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