Should Canada Legalize Prostitution? Panel Discussion with Gunilla Ekberg, Lee Lakeman & Trisha Baptie

If you have watched our film on sex trafficking in Canada, you will recognize the “Swedish model” as a strategy that has worked to curb sex trafficking and the exploitation of women in Sweden.  In 1999 Swedish government criminalized the purchase of sexual services and decriminalized those selling it, ensuring that men would be held responsible for prostitution and that women would have access to exit programs.  Due to its success, the law has been adopted in other Nordic countries.

Gunilla Ekberg, who played a key role in creating the Swedish model, is one of my favourite researchers and a well sought-after human rights consultant.  You can imagine my delight upon discovering that she was headed to BC!

On International Women’s Day last week, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion in Victoria entitled “Prostitution and Women’s Equality: Imagining More for Women,” organized by EVE (Formerly Exploited Voices now Educating) and REED (Resist Exploitation, Embrace Dignity).  The panel consisted of Gunilla Ekberg, EVE’s Trisha Baptie, and and Lee Lakeman from the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres.  Prostitution law was the topic at hand, which is quite timely in light of the Bedford case and the push for legalization of prostitution in Canada.


  • Trisha Baptie, who worked in the sex trade (both indoor and outdoor) for 15 years, kicked off the discussion by sharing that prostitution is violence against women that is “born out of sexism, classism, racism, poverty, and other forms of systemic oppression.”
  • Lee Lakeman spoke about her experience answering crisis calls at sexual assault centres, explaining how social service cuts in the BC area led to more calls from prostituted women.
  • The descriptions given by trafficking victims and “local prostituted women” were always similar.  This trend pushed rape crisis centres to take an official position on the prostitution issue.
  • Due to the physical harm on the body and how paid sex contributes to the dehumanization of women, they believe that prostitution is violence against women and should not be legalized. Lakeman suggested that as a country we must look at how poverty and racism play into prostitution, and to not lord our wealth over other countries but forgive debts and build foreign aid to protect the vulnerable around the world.

Gunilla Ekberg, who participated in the negotiations at the UN Palermo Protocol and has directed several national and multilateral projects to combat human trafficking in the EU, had the following to say:

  • Many pro-prostitution groups use Germany and the Netherlands as examples of where Canada should head regarding prostitution law.  Both countries have decriminalized prostitution, making it legal to buy sex.  Instead of proving that this approach works, these two countries are actually a case in point of how legalization fails to protect women, decrease trafficking, or curtail organized crime.
  • On October 1, 2000, the Dutch Parliament decided to remove the provision in the criminal code that criminalized the brothel.  This came after 20 years of debate on how one would control organized prostitution.  The lifting of the brothel ban created a new economic sector, allowing anyone to establish a brothel, escort service, or massage parlour by simply applying for a license from the municipality.  The municipality cannot refuse such requests, and in fact many brothels are even found in farm houses.
  • Contrary to popular belief, almost all those in brothels are independent contractors. They can easily receive a license, most regions simply requiring show of ID and a payment.  As independent contractors, their well-being is not guaranteed by the brothel owners. Many brothel owners have said in interviews that what happens behind the door is not their responsibility as long as it does not interfere with the commerce of the brothel.
  • Though some rooms have a panic button, women struggle getting to it when they are in danger with a violent man.  Some in Canada argue that indoor prostitution is safer that street prostitution. But it is not the place that harms you – it is those who are paying for your body that cause harm.
  • When you have a legal sector, police back off, and traffickers are drawn to the area. In 2003 and 2004, Amsterdam City Council realized that they had invited Estonian and Nigerian ‘mafia’ into the area, who can easily get girls into the country with ‘tourist’ visas.
  • In an effort to have more control, the government said that girls need to meet with a social worker before getting a license.  A Turkish pimp who owned 100 brothels in the Netherlands sued the government for this mandate, on the basis that such an initiative would hinder his profits under corporate law. When you legalize prostitution, you enable organized criminal groups to establish corporations with rights to sue the government over lost profit. Is this what we want in Canada?
  • Germany lifted their brothel ban in 2001.  To improve conditions for those in prostitution, they offered special social insurance benefits to those who wanted it.  The first evaluation of the law found that most of the women in the legal sector were from other countries. The second evaluation showed that the conditions of those in prostitution had not changed, and in 5 years only a handful of women (about 5) had taken advantage of the special social insurance benefits. In addition to this, the new law did not help women exit prostitution.  The law had failed to do what they had hoped.
  • Therefore the German government finds itself in the same situation as the Netherlands. Traffickers have organized large brothel conglomerates with the rights of corporations, and both countries are trying to backtrack.  Is this what we want for Canada?

This can be contrasted to the approach Sweden took in 1998.  From 1994 to 1998, the percentage of women in Parliament rose from 27% to 47%.  The law they created, which criminalized the purchaser of sex, addressed the narcissistic sexual behaviour of men.  How has this worked?

  • When the law came into effect, police in Demark noticed that traffickers were setting up shop there instead.  This demonstrates that traffickers try to avoid places with hostile laws regarding prostitution.
  • Pimps, traffickers, and johns are convicted together in one trial, so that the victim only has to testify once.  This ensures efficiency in the system and protects the victim from even more emotional trauma.
  • One woman from Russia was trafficked and sold around apartments in Stockholm.  She was forced to service over 500 men in 3 weeks, and said afterward that if it had not been for the law, she would have been dead.  The law made them stop the abuse and helped her to realize she had value.
  • Violators of the law are dealt with swiftly, whether they are well-known or not.  Two famous football players, a police chief, a lawyer, two politicians, a CEO of International Securitus, and a Supreme Court judge, are among those who have been convicted recently.
  • Twelve years after this law came into effect, a special government inquiry, led by the chancellor of justice (highest legal position in Sweden) was conducted.  It found that the number of people in street prostitution had halved since 1998.  In comparison to neighbouring Denmark (which does not have such a law), Sweden’s market for paid sex had plummeted.
  • When asked about deterrence, the majority of men responded that legislation or public shame would deter them from paying for sex. This shows that the law can help change behaviour of some.

Instead of backtracking, like Germany and the Netherlands, Sweden is taking these laws further.  A new bill is coming into effect on July 1, extending prison terms for men who are convicted under the law.

Ekberg was hoping that the bill would also enable the courts to convict Swedish men who pay for sex in other countries with a similar prostitution law, but that portion did not pass.  “Next battle!” she says.

The event ended off with some discussion and questions, including a statement from one person arguing that women should have the right to prostitute themselves, and that prostitution and trafficking were not the same thing.  To this, Lee Lakeman replied: “The brilliance of patriarchy is disintegration of issues,” and Trisha Baptie questioned:  “Why are we standing for our individual right to prostitute instead of standing with our sisters?”

Thank you Gunilla, Trisha, and Lee for sharing your experience and expertise with us, and for showing us that Canada can do better for prostituted women.

For more reading, check out Max Waltman’s article:  “Prohibiting Purchase of Sex in Sweden: Impact, Obstacles, Potential, and Supporting Escape”, and a Solutions Journal article entitled “The Swedish Approach: A European Union Country Fights Sex Trafficking”.

You can also get more information about the legalization debate at the EVE and REED websites.

What do you think about the Swedish model? About legalization?  If you attended the event, either in Victoria or Vancouver, I would also love to hear your thoughts below.

**September 2012 update: we are making a documentary about legalization of prostitution, its connection to sex trafficking, and preventative models around the world that work to decrease sexual exploitation and demand for paid sex.  We need your help to reach our funding goal for this project!  Find out more here.  All donations receive tax receipts.

Michelle Brock

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  1. says

    Great article!
    Just wanted to point out that the “Swedish Model” is now the “Nordic Model” as there have been several countries around Sweden that have adopted this model of women’s equality law. Sorry I cannot remember them all in this moment but will try to get them to you.

  2. Caroline Norma says

    Wonderful interview. Also note that South Korea prohibited the purchase of people for prostitution in 2004, and the Women’s Human Rights Commission of Korea oversees comprehensive exit and retraining programs for women, and campaigns for public education on the human rights violation of prostitution. Secondary schools and local governments are required by law to promote anti-prostitution perspectives in Korea. See:


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