Canada Decriminalizes Prostitution—Will It Get Sex Workers Off the Streets?

A court in Canada has ruled that prostitution is legal. But will decriminalization get sex workers off the streets or make their profession safer?

Looks like Canada could become the Nevada of the north after a court ruled yesterday that the laws that make running a brothel and living off proceeds of prostitution are unconstitutional. The deciding factor in the court’s decision was that the current laws force women onto the streets, putting them at greater risk of violence.


There is no doubt that working the sex trade on the streets is risky business. In my city of Halifax we have been recently, and painfully, reminded that is true after yet another violent attack on a sex worker. As an economist, though, I wish there were some evidence that decriminalization really will get sex workers off the streets or will make their profession safer. After all, the court also struck down the law prohibiting communication for the purpose of prostitution, so in one fell swoop the court has decriminalized both street and the brothel sector. Time and data will tell what the long run effect of a change in the laws will be (if they, in fact, stick) but for the time being I thought it might be interesting to apply some of the knowledge we have and think about the possibilities.  

First, the people who have the most to profit from decriminalization, in an economic sense, are the same people who brought the challenge in the first place; those who hope to profit from brothel ownership.  These particular owners are women and former sex workers and that, I am certain, helped them to make their case. I have wondered, though, since this trial began whether or not the case would have been as convincing if it had been brought by pimps instead of madams.  There is very little research into how working with a pimp, as opposed to working independently, changes the life of a sex worker. It is possible that sex workers will be safer without the legal restriction that prevented them from working with pimps in the past, a move that will no doubt increase the number of these types of relationships. The bottom line is that for now we just don’t know because the level of stigmatization around pimping has grossly complicated research in this area.

Second, decriminalization will not get child sex workers off the street; the new laws only apply to sex workers over the age of 18. Unless anyone believes the development of new brothel sector will eliminate the demand for these young street workers they will be continue to be exposed and may even be at greater risk from potentially violent clients if, as a result, they constitute a greater percentage sex-workers on the street.

Third, decriminalization will provide no protection for male sex workers. For whatever the reason, male sex workers work independently at much higher rates than female sex workers. They are less likely to move into an organized brothel arrangement and for those workers is it likely to be business as usual. They may experience an increase in demand, if potential clients have been deterred by the fear of arrest, but by the same logic supply will also increase, so greater profits are not inevitable.

Fourth, some men will still want to buy sex on the street. Sex is in the brothel sector will, without a doubt, cost more than it does on the street. Men who can’t afford to pay brothel prices, or don’t want to play by brothel rules (for example using a condom), will provide a steady demand for street sex.

Finally, where there is demand, supply will follow. We will still have sex workers on the streets in Canada. Sex workers with addictions, sex workers with STIs, older sex workers and sex workers with a variety of other characteristics that make it difficult for them to work in a brothel environment will continue to work on the streets. If Canada makes the further move from decriminalization to brothel regulation, insisting on licensing and STI testing for example, the price of sex in a brothel will increase further and the costs to the workers will increase as well. Then we won’t need laws to push sex workers onto the streets. Simple economics will take care of that. For more on this topic you might want to see my previous post Prostitution Paradox: Regulating Brothels Can Spread Disease.

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