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How Canada Can Revise Its Prostitution Laws

By Jimmy Carter

Published by the Ottawa Citizen.

The decision by the Supreme Court of Canada to strike down the existing basic laws governing prostitution is a step in the right direction. France is also struggling with the same issue, and is considering the adoption of the only workable solution that has been devised. New legislation has been passed by the French assembly to emulate Sweden, and a final decision by the senate is expected in June 2014.

I have reviewed this sensitive issue quite thoroughly while writing a book that will be published next year concerning the global abuse of women and girls.

Since prostitution is a profession that precipitates both trafficking in women and girls and also the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, it is important to explore the possibilities of enhancing the effect of restrictive laws that have been passed but seldom if ever enforced. For many centuries since the instigation of "the world's oldest profession," there has been a debate about the best way to reduce the prevalence of prostitution and the forced female slavery that it incurs. During the past few years I had an opportunity to speak with the ministers of health in two European countries that have taken opposite approaches, and one of them seems to be having some beneficial effect.

The Dutch government decided in 2000 that the best way to control prostitution, reduce sexually transmitted diseases, and protect women and girls from abuse was to legalize prostitution and the operation of brothels while regulating the trade. I remember how surprised I was to walk down the streets on my first visit to Amsterdam and pass windows in which attractive women were showing off their personal wares. The intent of this liberal law was to give the prostitutes some protection, with their work permits and mandatory health inspections. A sex tourism boom resulted, and in 2008 there were 142 licensed brothels in Amsterdam and about 500 window displays. A former mayor has stated that the enormous business of more than $100 million annually has been largely taken over by East European crime syndicates that are not only trafficking women but also illegal drugs. Although the permissive laws are still in effect, there is now a government move to rescue the prostitutes and help them find other trades.

There had been an effort in Sweden for a hundred years to pass legislation making illegal the purchase of sex by men, and when new legislation was drafted and debated in 1999 this was the key issue. Equally strong feelings were that women should not be punished, since many of the prostitutes were known to be improperly enticed or actually forced into selling their services. Although Sweden has the highest portion of women parliamentarians in Europe), they were divided on the key issues. The final legislation made it illegal to buy sexual services, to act as a pimp, or to operate a brothel, but the prostitutes were not considered to be acting illegally. The number of sex workers in Sweden dropped more than 40 per cent during the next five years, and the price charged for sexual favours has also fallen. Other European countries have watched these two experiments closely, and both Norway and Iceland passed laws similar to Sweden's. Nick Kristof, New York Times columnist and co-author of "Half the Sky," reports that "Customers can easily find an underage Eastern European girl working as a prostitute in Amsterdam, but not in Stockholm." Germany adopted the Netherlands model in dealing with prostitution, and found that the trade increased by 70 per cent in its larger cities.

The key to the relative success of Sweden's approach is to prescribe punishment for those who own and operate the brothels, control the women, and also the male customers who provide the profit motive. This was also the strong recommendation of participants in our Carter Center Defenders' Conference who are trying to control the trafficking of women in Atlanta and other places where sexual slavery is rampant. There is little doubt that public exposure in a trial and the imposition of a heavy fine or jail time for a few men who are prominent citizens or police officers who were buying or profiting from the sex trade would be extremely effective. The opposite policy still exists in the United States, where there are 50 times as many female prostitutes arrested as their male customers and handlers.

Canada would do well to consider the approach chosen by Sweden.

Jimmy Carter, president of the United States from 1977-81, is founder of the non-profit Carter Center, working to advance human rights worldwide.

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