Prostitution has long been the subject of varying moral perspectives and legal approaches. These divisions often reflect different ideas about how vulnerable people can best be protected from exploitation and violence.
International law relating to prostitution is mainly focused on two goals: protecting adults from forced prostitution and protecting children from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation. There is widespread international agreement on these goals but less agreement on how to regulate sexual services between consenting adults.
Canada’s approach to prostitution has changed significantly in recent years. Until 2014, consensual sex between adults for money was legal, although many activities surrounding the act of prostitution were prohibited. In Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, the Supreme Court of Canada found three such prohibitions to be unconstitutional, as they put the safety of sex workers at unnecessary risk. This forced Parliament to reconsider its approach to prostitution.
In Canada, sex workers do not face criminal penalties for selling, offering or advertising their own services in most circumstances. However, following new legislation in 2014, purchasing sexual services is a criminal offence. In addition, the Criminal Code seeks to address exploitative relationships through provisions that prohibit procurement of sex workers and advertising or receiving material benefits from the sale of another person’s sexual services. These provisions continue to be the subject of constitutional litigation.
At the provincial/territorial level, prostitution is sometimes indirectly regulated through such measures as community safety and public nuisance orders that target areas where prostitution occurs, highway and traffic legislation that allows police to impound vehicles for prostitution-related offences, and child welfare legislation that seeks to protect children who are at risk of child prostitution.
Similarly, municipalities regulate specific issues relating to prostitution, including through by-laws prohibiting solicitation in certain areas, zoning and business licensing decisions that affect the location and operation of adult entertainment services, and police guidelines that establish enforcement priorities.
In short, prostitution raises legal and policy issues that various levels of government seek to address, often using different tools and sometimes seeking different outcomes.
Read the full text of the HillStudy: Prostitution in Canada: International Framework, Federal Law, and Provincial and Municipal Jurisdiction
By Laura Barnett, Library of Parliament
Revised by Robert Mason, Laura Barnett and Julia Nicol, Library of Parliament