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Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
Green Light for Pimps and Johns

29 janvier 2006

par Élaine Audet et Micheline Carrier

In a document published 13 December 2005 entitled Sex, work, rights/Changing Canada’s criminal laws to protect sex workers’ health and human rights, the community-based organization Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (1) makes ten recommendations in favour of the total decriminalization of prostitution. The research, which spanned a two-year period, was made possible thanks to funding obtained from the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The Network claims it used evidence from “sex workers themselves” and from “credible research.” In fact, the Network consulted only evidence from organizations and university researchers who legitimize “sex work” and who propose that it be regulated. It follows that the Network came to conclusions that are in line with those of its “sources.”

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s document completely disregards the opinion of 92% of prostituted women who view prostitution neither as a choice nor as a profession, but rather, who want help getting out of prostitution. These women cannot intervene publicly for fear of reprisals from within their milieu. In short, the “research” for this document is not geared to the needs of the vast majority of prostituted women. The document does not mention the publicly voiced positions of those few organizations who help women and teenagers escape the “sex industry” (2), for example, Projet Intervention Prostitution Québec (PIPQ), the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres (CASAC) in Québec, British Columbia, and the Yukon, as well as support groups who help prostituted women in Toronto and other major Canadian cities.

The document is also silent about the research advisory committee that was composed of “survivors” of prostitution, and which guided the study undertaken by the Prostitution Awareness and Action Foundation of Edmonton. This group’s message is clear : “Go after the johns, go after the pimps, go after the drug dealers ; help us heal and be able to have the basics of life, such as food and housing ; help us create a more positive future for ourselves and our children” (Quinn, 2005). This call to action is a stark contrast to the case for decriminalization being defended by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and to which neither governments nor media have responded as yet.

The “research” at the origin of this so-called “report” therefore rests on evidence that is selective to say the least... A few hundred people, in Canada, claiming to speak for tens of thousands of women and girls who are sold, exchanged, and destroyed for profit, property, and pleasure in the name of the inviolable and uncontested right of men with power-an absolute right, which the Network’s document never questions.

Make way for the free market

For the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, laws are responsible for the living conditions of prostituted persons-not prostitution as such with its inherent risks and violence. The Network calls for the repeal of four sections of the Criminal Code that make “common bawdy-houses” illegal (art. 210), that make it illegal to transport or direct a person to a bawdy-house (art. 211), that prohibit “procuring” or “living on the avails of prostitution,” in another word, pimping (art. 212), and that make it illegal to “communicate” for the purposes of prostitution (art. 213).
There is a consensus in Canada for the decriminalization of prostituted persons, for the provision of necessary services, and for seeing to it that police protect instead of harass. The debate rather centres on the decriminalization of pimps and johns without whom prostitution would not exist (sections 210-211-212). In order to really help prostituted persons and neutralize the prostitutional system, laws can be altered to criminalize pimps and johns (art. 213).

The repeal of section 210 regarding “bawdy-houses” would signify the legalization of prostitution in brothels, in prostituted persons’ homes, in hotels, massage parlours, and in the various “establishments” used by escort services. In order to justify the repeal of this section, the document invokes the possibility for “sex workers” to “work indoors and in a place where they have more control over their own safety.” Yet, considerable evidence notably that of psychologist Melissa Farley, as well as the accounts of prostituted women, indicate that the isolation of prostitution indoors increases risks and leaves women at the mercy of johns and pimps.

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s document rehabilitates pimping by highlighting its so-called “good” points : “In defining ‘procuring,’ the law is too broad and does not recognize that sex workers can have different working arrangements. Someone who “procures” an adult to engage in prostitution may or may not be exploiting that person. Sometimes “procurers” can protect sex workers, help ensure their safety, and make sure that clients pay.” The Network’s document claims that, “pimps do not play a large part in street-based or off-street prostitution in Canada. Nor is there credible, verifiable evidence regarding the involvement of organized crime in prostitution.” This is contrary to the accounts given by prostituted women, as well as to the evidence provided by frontline groups and many researchers (3).

Regarding “Canada’s obligations under international human rights law and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” we must recall that Canada has signed different treaties notably the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Network’s “report” claims to adhere to the principles of this treaty, although article 6 stipulates that “signatory countries shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.”

Canada is also a signatory of the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, also known as the Palermo Convention. When it signed the treaty protocols, Canada committed to the fight against human trafficking, recognizing that it is linked, among other things, to the sexual exploitation of others, in other words, to pimping and to organized crime-activities that “organize” human trafficking on a global scale (4). The recommendations made by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, therefore, run counter to Canada’s pledge. The Network does not acknowledge that violence, and the sexual oppression and exploitation of women are inherent to the prostitutional system-a system that is in blatant violation of fundamental human rights and of women’s rights to equality recognized by the treaty.

The document attempts to justify the total decriminalization of prostitution by arguing that existing laws “increase risks,” “reinforce stigma” and “reinforce the attitude that sex workers deserve what they get when they are beaten up or murdered.” According to the document’s authors, the Criminal Code (sections 210 to 211) and “the way police use it, often force sex workers to work on the edges of society. This makes them vulnerable to violence, exploitation and other threats to their health and safety.”

Those responsible for the “risks and harms” are rather more likely to be men (pimps and johns) whose sense of entitlement means all is permitted in the exploitation of women whom they prostitute-including the contempt and hypocritical stigmatization that is inscribed in the vocabularies of all languages. How would the repeal of prostitution laws decrease prostituted women’s risk of contracting HIV/AIDS ? Particularly in light of the fact that only women “working” in legal brothels would eventually be given medical examinations, while men (johns and pimps) would still be at liberty to demand unprotected sex without ever being held responsible for propagating the disease.

Far from perpetuating respect, dignity, and the physical and psychological integrity of prostituted persons, as well as their right to equality, prostitution-whether it is decriminalized or not-constitutes the total negation of these attributes. Moreover, prostitution exposes to violence, to disease, to addiction, to a post-traumatic stress greater than what has been experienced by military veterans of the Vietnam or Gulf Wars, and to a suicide rate that is higher than in the rest of the population.
The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network also calls for the recognition of “sex work” as employment that should benefit from “employment standards” in accordance with the laws governing “occupational health and safety.”

The recognition of prostitution as a work, like any other form of employment that is subject to the Labour Code, would normalize violations of fundamental human rights. It would authorize a system wherein one group of human beings-in this case women-is placed in sexual servitude by and for another group, in this case men. It would amount to providing men with an increasingly vast “market” of women and children, without ever questioning either the legitimacy of this type of masculine demand or its consequences on society as a whole. Furthermore, all those who want help with finding a way out of prostitution would be deprived of any possible recourse.

Decriminalizing prostitution, as is proposed by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, would perpetuate the violence responsible for the deteriorating health of prostituted women. Countless studies attest to this fact. The consequences of prostitution on the mental and physical health of persons who engage in it are equal to the consequences of rape. Society has finally penalized rape-recognizing that the aggression and destruction of another person can never be justified. Should we call for the total decriminalization of rape sustained day after day by prostituted women on the grounds that it is a purchasable commodity subject to a pricing policy ?

Governments subsidizing the promotion of prostitution

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s “research,” which concludes the need to decriminalize prostitution, was undertaken thanks to a subsidy from the Public Health Agency of Canada. In its fight against HIV/AIDS, this federal agency had already granted $270,000 to Stella, a Montreal-based group, so that it could hold a four-day international meeting of prostituted persons in the spring of 2005. The event, called Forum XXX, had little to do with the fight against AIDS. Indeed, the elaboration of strategies aimed at advancing social attitudes favouring the decriminalization of prostitution was among the affirmed objectives of Forum XXX.

Using subsidies that are earmarked for the fight against HIV/AIDS (in whole or in part) to promote the legalization or the decriminalization of prostitution is neither new nor unique to Canada. Subsidizing organizations are generally familiar with this practice. In 2002, a report indicated that the European Union had granted tens of millions of euros in the fight against HIV/AIDS to organizations that openly support the sex industry and that promote prostitution as part of women’s rights. Moreover, studies indicate that collusion aimed at facilitating the distribution of subsidies to groups connected to the sex industry exists at all levels of institutions and the media worldwide.

At a conference in Montreal in 2005, researcher Melissa Farley (5) emphasized the fact that the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a group based in Kolkata, India, that defends the rights of “sex workers,” receives millions of dollars each year from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation “officially” to fight against HIV/AIDS. The same group collaborated in the organization and activities of Forum XXX in Montreal. Thanks to the funding it receives for the fight against HIV/AIDS, the DMSC-who shelters 60,000 women and girls and controls a network of brothels linked to human trafficking-also promotes the legalization of prostitution. The fight against AIDS is used to cloak the legitimization of the sex industry as well as its project manager, organized crime. Yet, the prostituted women who were interviewed by Farley in 9 countries “want more than condoms and a union, they want to escape prostitution. They want a stable income, housing, alternative solutions to prostitution, medical services and detoxification therapies.” Whose concern is this ?

A biased document

The question raised by this document regards how the fate of prostituted persons could be improved if pimps and johns were given the green light to continue treating prostituted women merely like disposable merchandise against whom all forms of violence are a simple matter of price. Is it contrary to the security, freedom, and well-being of prostituted persons to fight for a society where prostitution does not exist, and with the knowledge that such an objective cannot be attained in the short term in the absence of political will ?

The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s document, which is called a “report,” is in fact destined to those groups who comprised its “sources,” and to complacent branches of government : It is based on a truncated reality. The Network dismissed the majority of research describing the consequences of decriminalized pimping elsewhere in the world in order to arrive at its conclusions. It ignored, for example, the relevant evidence on the deteriorating health and security of prostituted women in all countries where prostitution has been decriminalized, such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia. It ignored evidence on the rising numbers in juvenile prostitution and the trafficking of women and children, and on the proportionately minute numbers of registered prostituted women who pay taxes and submit to medical controls.

The document adds nothing new to the current debate. It only reopens, for the umpteenth time, the discourse that is favourable to the prostitutional system and that for years has been supported by the media, pro-prostitution groups, and certain governmental organizations. For these groups, the “report” is a useful propaganda tool, much like the “consultations” of the Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws whose own report has not yet been released. Rather than serving the interests of a majority of prostituted persons, it is rather the interests of the “sex industry” who, with governments’ complicity, exploits women and children like merchandise that is renewable at will. In short, the financing of this “report” by the Public Health Agency of Canada represents nothing more than a waste of public funds.


1. The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network promotes the human rights of people living with and vulnerable to HIV/AIDS, in Canada and internationally. We accomplish this through research, legal and policy analysis, education, advocacy, and community mobilization. The Legal Network is Canada’s leading advocacy organization working on the legal, ethical and human rights issues raised by HIV/AIDS.
2. Rose Dufour, Je vous salue...Le point zéro de la prostitution, éditions Multimondes, Sainte-Foy, 2005. Read Jade’s account here.
3. Élaine Audet, Prostitution, perspectives féministes, Montréal, éditions Sisyphe, 2005. See Chapter 2, Les maîtres du jeu.
4. Richard Poulin, Globalization and the Sex Trade:Trafficking and the Commodification of Women and Children, Éditions Imago, 2005, read more here.
5. Consult the abundant information on her website including a U.S. Department of State report on the link between the activities of organized crime and the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation.

Translation : Thérèse Brown

On Sisyphe, January 31, 2006.

Élaine Audet et Micheline Carrier


Lire l’article en français ici.

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