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Submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls to the Human Rights Council on prostitution and violence against women and girls.

January 2024
Submission by Women’s Space Vancouver, BC, Canada

What we stand for:

  • The protection of women's human rights

  • The protection of women-only spaces

  • The rejection of sex-role stereotypes

  • The right to discuss and describe our bodies, our sexual lives, and our reproductive abilities

  • The right to express ourselves without bullying and intimidation

  • Democracy


Canada, after a large feminist lobby, adopted a version of the Nordic Model in 2014.  Women’s Space Vancouver supports this model and is opposed to the legalization or decriminalization of prostitution.

The Canadian Parliament recognizes prostitution as an inherently harmful activity that harms women and girls, negatively impacts marginalized groups (especially racialized and Indigenous women and girls) and harms the communities in which it takes place.  The Act, The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) received Royal Assent in 2014.

Canada’s intent in adopting the Nordic Model was to reduce the demand for sex work.  The Government stated through its Technical Paper, at the time: 

The majority of those who sell their own sexual services are women and girls.  Marginalized groups, such as Aboriginal women and girls, are disproportionately represented.  Prostitution reinforces gender inequalities in society at large by normalizing the treatment of primarily women’s bodies as commodities to be bought and sold.  In this regard, prostitution harms everyone in society by sending the message that sexual acts can be bought by those with money and power.  Prostitution allows men, who are primarily the purchasers of sexual services, paid access to female bodies, thereby demeaning and degrading the human dignity of all women and girls by entrenching a clearly gendered practice in Canadian society.  Prostitution is an extremely dangerous activity that poses a risk of violence and psychological harm to those subjected to it, regardless of the venue or legal framework in which it takes place, both from purchasers of sexual services and from third parties.”

The legal status of sex work is no longer ambiguous in Canada.  The purchase of sex is prohibited.   Sex work is no longer legal, but sellers of their own sexual services are immune from prosecution.  Other prohibited activities, procuring, advertising, stopping traffic, and communicated for the purposes of sex work near a school, daycare centre, or playground.  Also, an offence is receiving a material benefit from sex work. Sex workers are immune from prosecution for advertising their own sexual services.

There is a growing call in Canada, to decriminalize or legalize prostitution, to recognize selling sexual services as work. This change would make legal, both the selling and buying of sexual services and make legal all transactions in support of the sex trade.  

A recent court case heard by the Ontario Supreme Court was brought by a coalition of sex workers challenging aspects of the PCPCA as unconstitutional.  Justice Robert Goldstein, found that, in his view,” many of the harms complained of are simply the collateral consequence of prohibiting the purchase of sex by customers, or the collateral consequences of the other challenged offenses.”  In the Judgment, he asks the question: Is The Purpose of PCEPA Pressing and Substantial?


Judge Goldstein in the Findings of Fact regarding prostitution in Canada, is convinced that the purpose of PCEPA is indeed “pressing and substantial.” Below is taken directly from Judge Goldstein’s judgment:

  • [482] Moreover, some of the key findings of fact in these reasons support that the objective is pressing and substantial (I repeat and condense some of my earlier findings of fact):

  • Significant numbers of sex workers come from marginalized and racialized groups.Indigenous women and girls make up a disproportionate number of those involved in the sex trade.Large numbers of sex workers are coerced or trafficked into the sex trade.

  • Many, of those who are coerced and trafficked are themselves women and girls from marginalized groups.

  • There is a very strong link between sex work and human trafficking.Violence and the threat of violence are present in the everyday lives of many sex workers.

  • Sex workers have not been displaced to more isolated and dangerous areas as a result of the communications and stopping traffic offences.

The Special Rapporteur asks in Question 9,                


How effective have legislative frameworks and policies been in preventing and responding to violence against women and girls in prostitution?

Judge Goldstein in the Ontario Supreme Court Judgment notes several salutary effects of PCEPA since 2014:

  • “With respect, I have found in my analysis of the evidence that the Attorneys General have established at least some salutary effects since the enactment of PCEPA.

  • The number of women charged with communications or stopping traffic offences since the enactment of PCEPA has declined sharply.

  • The number was already declining significantly prior to PCEPA, but the number has continued to fall. Prior to PCEPA, the number of women charged with communications or stopping traffic offences resulted in a majority being found guilty and many being sentenced to jail terms. In the five-year period after PCEPA only two women in Canada were found guilty and neither were sentenced to jail. Over the same period, the number of men charged with the purchasing offence has increased.

  •  While correlation is not causation, these results were an objective of the immunity provisions, as well as the narrow targeting of the new communications and stopping traffic offences.

  • Another salutary effect is that the number of homicides of sex workers has also declined.

  • Again, it is unclear if there is a causal effect with PCEPA, or with better policing, or commensurate with a drop in the homicide rate generally, but it is real.

  • What is also striking is that in the five years prior to PCEPA the perpetrator of a homicide against a sex worker was identified as being in a criminal relationship with the victim in 43% of those cases (a client, drug dealer or client, or gang member); in the five years after PCEPA this number was 29%.

  • The number of Indigenous homicide victims among sex workers also declined: from 20 of 54 sex workers in the five years prior to PCEPA, to 7 of 35 sex workers in the five years after. Of course, even one homicide is one homicide too many. As well the statistical significance has limits, given the small numbers. Nonetheless, the numbers are real.

  • Certainly there is no evidence that homicides of sex workers have increased.

  • Finally, as I have emphasized in these reasons, when the offences are properly interpreted, sex workers are able to take measures to enhance safety without fear of prosecution.”

Ontario Superior Court Ruling 

Women’s Space Vancouver believes that the salutary effects of Canada’s Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act. would increase with a  serious and dedicated intention by all levels of government to end prostitution in Canada.  The following are some of the measures that would contribute to achieving that goal:

  • Ensure the funding and supports are in place across Canada to help women exit prostitution.  Most women who enter prostitution do so under conditions of poverty, incest and other forms of sexual assault and racism.  In Canada, women of colour and Indigenous women are vastly overrepresented in prostitution.   (One third of the victims of serial killer of prostitutes, Robert Picton, were Indigenous women.) 

  • Government initiatives like, guaranteed livable income, affordable housing. universal daycare, are all initiatives currently being considered at the Federal  and Provincial levels in Canada and would support prostituted women’s exit from a dangerous activity.  Women have informed front line women’s shelters that given safe economic certainty and support, they would exit prostitution.

  • To maximize the potential of the PCEPC there needs to be increased enforcement of the legislation to charge the pimps, johns, brothel owners, sex traffickers, and businesses that hide prostitution behind a façade of legitimacy. When laws against sex purchase are publicized and enforced, the demand for prostitution decreases.

  • A program of public awareness regarding the extent of domestic sex trafficking in Canada would help to educate Canadians about this very serious problem.  There is a misconception that sex trafficking is an international issue, outside of the control of Canadian authorities.  However, national statistics of sex trafficking show that nine in 10 (91%) victims of police-reported human trafficking incidents between 2011 and 2021 knew their accused trafficker, while a relatively small proportion (9%) of victims were trafficked by a stranger (Government of Canada, 2022). A trafficker tends to be someone close to the victim (e.g., boyfriend, friend, relative, or peer) (Canadian Centre to End Human trafficking, 2020).

  • Globally, and in Canada, it can be observed that trafficked victims often come from places of oppression, systemic discrimination, and poverty.  Only by dealing with the systemic issues of women’s inequality and oppression and violence, will we be able to tackle the subsequent dangerous commodification of women’s bodies, 

  • Violence against women and girls is increasing everywhere in Canada, as reported by front line workers and health care officials in Canada.  Prostitution and pornography contribute to a rape culture.  Female students in high schools across Canada are sounding the alarm protesting inside and outside their schools about the sexual harassment and sexual abuse they endure at school.  Recently, in Victoria, BC, a 12-year-old girl was sexually attacked by grade 8 boys in their school playground.   Influenced by an unregulated porn industry, children are being influenced by internet porn that teaches them that females are sexual objects to be used.  

  • All levels of Government need to include and involve the front-line women’s organizations in recommending the changes necessary to protect women and girls from becoming victims.

  • Some of the recurring themes identified by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, that contribute to the recruitment of Indigenous women into human trafficking include: • Precarious housing and poor living conditions • High rates of unemployment, unstable unemployment, and low working wages • Lack of access to social and economic resources and programs • Prior exposure to human trafficking and the sex trade from a young age (through family or friends) • Family violence and the impacts of colonization (such as the residential school experience and intergenerational trauma)


In conclusion, Women’s Space Vancouver vehemently opposes the legalization or decriminalization of prostitution in Canada.  The outcome of such a legal change would be to ignore the conditions that force women and girls into prostitution, and make legal a dangerous practice that harms our most vulnerable.   Legalizing prostitution is no path to women’s equality.   Canada must take steps to strengthen its commitment to ending prostitution in Canada.

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