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Study critiques Vancouver’s prostitution policies

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A recent study has concluded that the Nordic Model of prostitution laws could endanger sex trade workers even further and does not affect the demand for prostitution.

The Nordic Model, originating in Nordic nations such as Norway and Sweden, criminalizes the act of buying sex but not selling it — johns and pimps are prosecuted rather than sex trade workers themselves.

Conducted by UBC researchers and the Gender & Sexual Health Initiative (GHSI) of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, the study found that the Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) new policies — which focus on punishing clients — neither deterred prostitution nor increased the safety of sex trade workers.

Since the VPD’s policy shift, sex work related arrests have increased from 47 in 2012 to 71 in 2013, a 51 per cent increase. However, the report notes that there has been “no change in rates of work-related physical and sexual violence against sex workers” since the change in policy.

Andrea Krüsi, one of the authors of the report and a research assistant at GHSI, explained the results to The Peak: “In the context where clients are criminalized, it’s still in the shared interests of the client and the sex worker to be undetected by the police and so this led to women having to rush screening their clients [. . .] What they need to do is just hop into the car and hope for the best.”

The report states that the VPD’s new approach “severely limits street-based sex workers’ control over their health and safety due to [an] inability to screen clients or negotiate terms of transactions,” being forced to relocate to remote areas such as industrial areas, and an “inability to access police protection.”

In addition, due to the increased difficulty of targeting clients who are willing to risk potential criminal charges, many sex workers are forced to stay out longer, thus increasing their risk.

Krüsi added that, even though the police emphasized prioritizing the safety of sex workers, “sex workers were reluctant to report violence to police because they were worried that if they go to [the] police to report a violent client, that the police might use some of that information they give to refine their enforcement methods.”

“Our findings are very clear: that when clients are continued to be targets, the harms of criminalization are reproduced.”

Earlier this month, the federal government tabled new legislation on prostitution that would criminalize selling sex in areas where children under 18 are present. It would also criminalize advertisement of sex services, for which sex workers could face five years in prison. 

However, these new regulations would share the Nordic Model’s focus on clients by criminalizing the buying of sex, which was previously legal.

John Lowman, an SFU criminology professor, said that policies targeting just clients could be challenged as unconstitutional: “To have one party in what is a legally consenting adult relationship [. . .] held criminally responsible while the other party is not, is state-sponsored, institutionalized entrapment.”

Lowman expressed concern that new regulations designating areas where sex is criminalized could further endanger sex workers by forcing prostitution out of residential districts.

He explained that police enforced similar policies in the 1990s, and would not go after sex workers if they worked in places such as industrial districts. “That industrial area, which the police had turned into a red light district in the 1990s, became the killing field of Vancouver. That’s where Mr. Pickton picked up most of [his] victims,” said Lowman.

Both Lowman and the report state that decriminalization of sex work, with the potential for regulation and protection, is the best way to ensure the safety of sex workers, following the lead of countries such as New Zealand.

“[We should focus on] accepting that prostitution is a profession and is not inherently sexual abuse,” Krüsi told The Peak. “And therefore we should allow women, or sex workers in general to have working conditions that are conducive of safety and not make it harder to protect themselves.”