Skip to main content

Rethinking the Prostitution Debates: Transcending Structural Stigma in Systemic Responses to Sex Work1

  • Chris Bruckert (a1) and Stacey Hannem (a2)

As legal authorities consider the constitutionality of the laws surrounding prostitution in Canada, we have the opportunity to rethink some of the fundamental assumptions that have been made about sex work and the socio-legal responses to it. In this article we draw on the concept of structural stigma to analyze the stigmatic assumptions inherent in the Canadian laws and briefly describe their effect—the civic exclusion of sex workers. We then consider the ways in which these same assumptions of risk and immorality are reproduced in end-demand (partial criminalization), legalized (regulatory) models, and decriminalization. While the decriminalization of sex work is the response that relies on the least stigmatic assumptions, even the celebrated New Zealand model is not absent of moralization and “othering” discourse. Further reflection is required to conceptualize a policy approach that transcends stigmatic assumptions so as to respect the human and civil rights of sex workers.


Tandis que les autorités judiciaires examinent la constitutionalité des lois sur la prostitution au Canada, il est possible de revoir certaines hypothèses fondamentales ainsi que les mesures socio-juridiques envers le travail du sexe. Dans cet article, les auteures s’appuient sur la notion des inégalités structurelles afin d’analyser les suppositions stigmatisantes inhérentes à la réglementation canadienne et décrire brièvement leurs effets, spécifiquement l’exclusion civique des travailleurs du sexe. Par la suite, les auteures examinent comment ces mêmes hypothèses concernant le risque et l’immoralité sont reproduites dans les régimes de réglementation, soit la criminalisation partielle, les modèles réglementaires de légalisation, ou la décriminalisation réglementée. Bien que la décriminalisation du travail du sexe repose sur des suppositions qui sont moins stigmatisantes, même le populaire modèle de la Nouvelle-Zélande s’appui sur un discours moralisateur ainsi que sur l’idée de « l’autre ». Il est nécessaire d’approfondir la réflexion afin de conceptualiser des politiques pouvant transcender de telles suppositions dans le but de respecter les droits humains et civils des travailleurs du sexe.

Hide All

The authors wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the journal editor for their helpful comments. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Conference on Law and Society in Honolulu, Hawai’i, June 4–8, 2012.

Hide All

2 Criminal Code of Canada RSC 1985, c 46, ss 210, 212.1(j) and 213(1). [Criminal Code]

3 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982 being Schedule B to the Canada Act 1982 (UK), 1982, c 11. Section 7 guarantees the right to “life, liberty and security of the person.”

4 Canada (AG) v Bedford, [2012] ONCA 186. [Canada v Bedford]

5 Ibid. at para 135.

6 Ibid. at para 256, reasoning that the “living on the avails” law was intended to protect sex workers from pimps yet criminalized all professional relationships (i.e., those with receptionists, security, drivers) that help and offer sex workers security.

7 Ibid. at para 327.

8 Ibid. at para 212.

9 Since “bawdy-house” as defined in Criminal Code s197 and not in s 210 is being revised (with the removal of the word “prostitution”), a significant grey area has emerged as “houses kept for the practice of acts of indecency” are still subject to criminal sanction.

10 Canada v Bedford at para 304.

11 Ibid. at para 322.

12 Ibid. at para 373.

13 See, for example, Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. “Federal conservatives continue to jeopardize women’s lives and neighbourhood safety,” (April 26, 2012),

14 See, for example, REAL Women of Canada. “Prostitution Decision by Ontario Court of Appeal Attorney General of Canada and Bedford,” (March 26, 2012),; The Coalition for the Abolition of Prostitution. “Equality-seeking Women’s Groups will continue to demand a change in the laws on prostitution” (March 26, 2012),

15 A Supreme Court ruling would be applicable to the nation and not just Ontario as is, at least in principle, currently the case.

16 Canada v Bedford at para 173.

17 Ibid. at paras 216–17. See also paras 183, 190, and 201.

18 See, for example, S. Davis and M. Shaffer, “Prostitution in Canada: The Invisible Menace or the Menace of Invisibility?” (1994),; Scoular J., “What’s Law Got to Do With it? How and Why Law Matters in the Regulation of Sex Work,” Journal of Law and Society 37, 1 (2010), 12; Shaver F. M., “Legislative Approaches to Prostitution: A Critical Introduction,” in Reading Sociology: Canadian Perspectives, 2nd ed., eds. Tepperman L. and Kalyta A. (Toronto: Oxford, 2012); Sullivan B., “When (Some) Prostitution is Legal: The Impact of Law Reform on Sex Work in Australia,” Journal of Law and Society 37, 1 (2010), 85.

19 Hannem S., “Theorizing Stigma and the Politics of Resistance: Symbolic and Structural Stigma in Everyday Life,” in Stigma Revisited: Implications of the Mark, eds. Hannem S. and Bruckert C., Chapter 2 (Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 2012).

20 Kilvington J., Day S., and Ward H., “Prostitution Policy in Europe: A Time of Change,” Feminist Review 67, 1 (2001), 78 at 90.

21 See Jeffrey L. A. and Sullivan B., “Canadian Sex Work Policy for the 21st Century: Enhancing Rights and Safety, Lessons from Australia,” Canadian Political Science Review 3, 1 (2009) at 64.

22 Ibid.; Sullivan, “When Some Prostitution is Legal.”

23 Scoular, “What’s Law Got to Do With it?” at 12.

24 Agustin L., “Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment: The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution,” Sexuality Research & Social Policy 5, 1 (2008) at 74.

25 Ibid.; Agustin, “Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment” at 74.

26 Scoular, “What’s Law Got to Do With it?” at 13

27 Hannem, “Theorizing Stigma.”

28 Here we are drawing attention to the process of “translation”—how a policy is enacted will be conditioned by the institutions and individuals responsible for implementation tactics—what O’Malley, Shearing, and Weir (1996) refer to as the “messy actualities.” For example, police services exercise considerable discretion in enforcement practices. See Latour B., “The Powers of Association,” in Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Law J., 264–80 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986); O’Malley P., Weir L., and Shearing C., “Governmentality, Criticism, Politics,” Economy and Society 26, 4 (1997), 501.

29 Male sex workers comprise an estimated twenty to twenty-five percent of the industry; see Parliament of Canada, Report of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights—The Challenge of Change: A Study of Canada’s Criminal Prostitution Laws. (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2006) at 10. However, in discourse this issue is highly gendered, and we use the female pronoun.

30 For a discussion of sex workers’ perceptions of prevailing stereotypes, see Bruckert C. and Chabot F., Challenges: Ottawa-area Sex Workers Speak Out. (Ottawa: POWER, 2010).

31 For a discussion of the stereotypes embedded in the discourse of the Ottawa Police Service, see Bruckert C. and Hannem S., “To Serve and Protect? Structural Stigma, Social Profiling and the Abuse of Police Power in Ottawa,” in Selling Sex: Canadian Academics, Advocates, and Sex Workers in Dialogue, eds. Van der Meulen E., Durisin E. M., and Love V., chapter 19 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013).

32 See Jeffrey L. A. and MacDonald G., Sex Workers in the Maritimes Talk Back. (Vancouver: UBC, 2006); Haulgrimsdott H., Phillips R. and Benoit C., “Fallen Women and Rescued Girls: Social Stigma and Media Narratives of the Sex Industry in Victoria, B.C., from 1980 to 2005,” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 43, 3 (2006), 265, for discussions on the media’s reproduction of stereotypes.

33 For a particularly egregious example, see Hintonburg Community Association, Street-level Prostitution: Dispelling the Myths (Ottawa: HCA, 2001).

34 Of course, like all stereotypes, some of these things may be true of individual sex workers’ realities; however, to extrapolate from some to all workers takes us down a treacherous path. History is littered with instances where stigmatic assumptions were used to trample upon the human rights of a population.

35 See Bruckert and Chabot, Challenges; Jeffrey and MacDonald, Sex Workers Talk Back; Lewis J. and Shaver F., Safety, Security, and the Well-Being of Sex Workers: A Report Submitted to the House of Commons Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws. (Windsor: Sex Trade and Advocacy–STAR, 2006).

36 See, for example, Bernstein E., “Sex Work for the Middle Classes,” Sexualities 10, 4 (2007), 437.

37 For example, the three plaintiffs in Bedford v Canada are members of Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC, Toronto), and POWER (Ottawa) joined with Maggie’s (Toronto) to intervene in the OCA hearings.

38 Canada v Bedford, at para 134, emphasis ours. When they assert “the acknowledged reality that prostitution is inherently dangerous in virtually any circumstances” (at para 117) they prioritize “common knowledge” over the volumes of expert testimony that Justice Himel ruled credible and which they implicitly they endorse when they defer to Justice Himel’s assessment (at para 130).

39 Foucault M., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977, ed. Gordon C. (New York: Pantheon, 1980).

40 Goffman E., Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963).

41 Hannem Stacey and Bruckert Chris, eds., Stigma Revisited: Implications of the Mark. (Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 2012).

42 For a detailed theoretical discussion of the concept of structural stigma, see Hannem, Theorizing Stigma.”

43 Ibid.

44 McLaren J., “Chasing the Social Evil: Moral Fervour and the Evolution of Canada’s Prostitution Laws,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 1 (1986), 125; Shaver F. M., “The Regulation of Prostitution: Avoiding the Morality Traps,” Canadian Journal of Law and Society 9 (1994), 123.

45 Hunt Alan, “Risk and Moralization in Everyday Life,” in Risk and Morality, eds. Ericson R. V. and Doyle A., 165–92 (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2003).

46 Foucault, Power/Knowledge.

47 D. Brock, Making Work, Making Trouble – 2 ndEdition: The Social Regulation of Sexual Labour (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2009).

48 According to Criminal Code at s 213.(2), a “‘public place’ includes any place to which the public have access as of right or by invitation, express or implied, and any motor vehicle located in a public place or in any place open to public view.”

49 Criminal Code at s 213.(1).

50 Reference re ss 193 and 195.1(1)(C) of the criminal code (Man.) [1990] 1 SCR. 1123, paras 15–16.

51 Canada v Bedford at para 307, emphasis ours. This issue was raised by Justice MacPherson writing for the dissent at 346: “It is not clear to me how street prostitution’s association with these other social ills increases the weight that ought to be assigned to the legislative objective” (emphasis in the original).

52 N. Currie and K. Gillies, Bound by the Law: How Canada’s Protectionist Policies in the Areas of Both Rape and Prostitution Limit Women’s Choices, Agency and Activities. (Status of Women Canada, Unpublished Manuscript, 2006).

53 Criminal Code at s 210(1).

54 Bedford v Canada (Attorney General) [2010] ONSC 4264 at para 239. [Bedford v Canada]. See also Canada v Bedford at para 195.

55 Lewis and Shaver, Safety, Security and Well-being.

56 Socio-historical researcher Mariana Valverde asserts that “virtually no evidence was found of a traffic in Canadian women, either within or without Canadian borders.” Valverde M., The Age of Light, Soap and Water: Moral Reform in English Canada, 1885–1925. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991) at 93. Surprisingly, the appeal court justices refer to “the pressing social problem of so-called ‘white-slavery’”; Canada v Bedford at para 202. They also appear to accept the evidence of appellants’ witnesses when they assert that “frequently police investigating residential bawdy-houses have found vulnerable women brought in from abroad or under-age girls working as prostitutes” (at para 195).

57 Criminal Code at s 212(j).

58 Criminal Code at s 212 (a)(h).

59 Currie and Gillies, Bound by the Law; Lewis and Shaver, Safety, Security, and Well-being; J. Lowman, “Violence and the Outlaw Status of (Street) Prostitution in Canada,” Violence Against Women 6, 9 (2000), 987; Van der Meulen E., “Illegal Lives, Loves, and Work: How the Criminalization of Procuring Affects Sex Workers in Canada,” Wagadu 8 (2010), 217–40.

60 Canada v Bedford at para 254.

61 Ibid. at para 270.

62 Canada’s first Criminal Code (1892) prohibited “all persons from procuring the defilement of women under the age of 21.” In 1897, a new law was added that criminalized “the procuring of women for unlawful carnal connection,” and in 1913, in the shadow of moral panic about the “white slave trade,” the procuring provisions were revised to criminalize living on the earnings of another’s prostitution.

63 Van der Meulen, “Illegal Lives.”

64 Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Not Up to the Challenge of Change: An Analysis of the Report of the Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws. (Toronto: Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, 2007) at 6.

65 Canada v Bedford at para 277.

66 As quoted in Rosen R., The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America 1900–1918 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1982) at 64.

67 Hughes E. C., “Dilemmas and Contradictions of Status,” American Journal of Sociology 50 (1945), 353–59.

68 Criminal Code at s 279

69 Ibid. at ss 265, 267, 268

70 Ibid. at ss 271, 272, 273

71 Ibid. at s 279

72 Ibid. at s 264

73 Lowman, “Violence and the Outlaw Status”; Lewis and Shaver, Safety, Security and Well-being; Currie and Gillies, Bound by the Law; Bruckert and Chabot, Challenges.

74 Currie and Gillies, ibid.

75 Ibid. at 55.

76 F. M. Shaver, “Prostitution: A Critical Analysis of Three Policy Approaches,” Canadian Public Policy 11 (1985), 493–503. See also Jeffrey and Sullivan, “Canadian Sex Work Policy,” at 63.

77 Lewis J. and Maticka-Tyndale E., “Licensing Sex Work: Public Policy and Women’s Lives,” Canadian Public Policy 26 (2000), 437; Eden P., Sex Industry Worlds: Massage Parlours, Escort Agencies and the Social Organization of Sex Work in Christchurch (University of Canterbury, Department of Sociology, Unpublished MA thesis, 1997).

78 Quoted in Kavemann B. and Rabe H., The Act Regulating the Legal Situation of Prostitutes— implementation, impact, current developments. (Berlin: SoFFIF, September 2007), at 10,

79 Ibid.

80 Ibid. at 27.

81 Nevada Revised Statutes at s 201.380

82 Ibid. at s 201.390

83 Nevada Administrative Code, at s 441A.805

84 Ibid. at s 441A.800

85 Nevada Revised Statutes, at s 201.356

86 Ibid. at s 201.358

87 Ibid. at s 201.356

88 Ibid. at s 201.354

89 Brents B. and Hausbeck K., “State Sanctioned Sex: Negotiating Informal and Formal Regulatory Practices in Nevada Brothels,” Sociological Perspectives 44 (2001), 307.

90 Bruckert C. and Parent C., “Le travail du sexe comme métier,” In Mais oui c’est un travail! eds. Parent C., Bruckert C., Corriveau P., Mensah M. N., and Toupin L. (Montreal: Université du Quebec, 2010); Van der Meulen E. and Durisin E. M., “Why Decriminalize? How Canada’s Municipal and Federal Regulations Increase Sex Workers’ Vulnerability,” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 20 (2008), 289.

91 See Sullivan, “When (some) Prostitution is Legal.”

92 See, for example, Millett K., The Prostitution Papers: A Candid Dialogue (New York: Avon, 1972); James J., “The Prostitute as Victim,” in The Victimization of Women, eds. Chapman J. R. and Gates M. J. (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1977); Barry K., Female Sexual Slavery (New York: NYU Press, 1979); Wilson E., What is to be Done About Violence Against Women? (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983); Jeffreys S., “Prostitution,” in Women Against Violence Against Women, eds. Rhodes D. and McNeil S. (London: Onlywomen Press, 1985); M. O’Hara, “Prostitution: Towards a feminist analysis and strategy,” ibid.

93 Barry K., The Prostitution of Sexuality: The Global Exploitation of Women. (New York: NYU Press, 1995); Carter V., “Prostitution and the New Slavery,” in Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, eds. Whisnant R. and Stark C. (North Melbourne: Spifex, 2004). Jeffreys S., “Prostitution as a Harmful Cultural Practice,” in Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography, eds. Whisnant R. and Stark C. (North Melbourne: Spifex, 2004).

94 M. Farley, “Prostitution is Sexual Violence,” Psychiatric Times October (2004), 7; Farley M., “‘Bad for the Body, Bad for the Heart’: Prostitution Harms Women Even if Legalized or Decriminalized,” Violence Against Women 10 (2004), 1087.

95 Swedish Institute, Selected Extracts of the Swedish Government Report SOU 2010:49: The Ban Against the Purchase of Sexual Services. An Evaluation, 1999–2008. (Government of Sweden, 2010) at 5.

96 Special Advisor on issues of prostitution and trafficking in women at the Swedish Division for Gender Equality, quoted in B. Wallace, The Ban on Purchasing Sex In Sweden: The So-Called ‘Swedish Model’ of Prostitution Licensing Authority (Queensland, 2011).

97 Swedish Penal Code, Chapter 6, section 11.

98 Swedish Institute, Selected Extracts, at 3.

99 Ibid. at 31.

100 Bernstein E., “Militarized Humanitarianism Meets Carceral Feminism: The Politics of Sex, Rights, and Freedom in Contemporary Anti-Trafficking Campaigns,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 36, 1 (2010), 45.

101 Wallace, “The Ban on Purchasing Sex”; D. Kulick, “On the Swedish model.” Presented at the Beijing Plus Ten Meetings (2005), on_the_Swedish_Model.pdf; L. Agustin, “Big Claims, Little Evidence: Sweden’s Law Against Buying Sex,” The Local (July 23, 2010),; S. Dodillet and P. Östergren, “The Swedish Sex Purchase Act: Claimed Success and Documented Effects.” (2011),

102 Norwegian working group, Purchasing Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands. (Norway: Ministry of Justice and the Police, 2004).

103 P. Jakobsson, A Swedish sex worker on the criminalization of clients. Video. (2010),; S. Rosinha,“On the Situation of Sex Workers in Sweden,” Presented at the Taipei Sex Worker Conference in Taiwan, 2001.

104 Norway introduced an end-demand law in 2009. A 2012 Farlige Forbindelser report (, commissioned by the City of Oslo, concluded, based on interviews with sex workers, police and social service providers, that sex workers were more vulnerable to violence and had increased their reliance on third parties. See partial translation of report by Wendy Lyon, http://feministire.

105 Wallace, The Ban on Purchasing Sex; Kulick, “On the Swedish Model”; Dodillet and Östergren, “The Swedish Sex Purchase Act”

106 Swedish Institute, Selected Extracts, at 34.

107 Ibid. at 34, emphasis ours.

108 Ibid. at 10.

109 Rose T., Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). See also Scoular, “What’s Law Got to Do With It?” at 33. Scoular makes a similar link to neoliberalism when she argues, “those who act responsibly by adopting appropriate lifestyles via work and norms of sexuality are offered inclusion, those who do not or cannot and instead remain in sex work . . . are excluded.”

110 Abel G. M., Fitzgerald L. J. and Brunton C., “The Impact of Decriminalisation on the Number of Sex workers in New Zealand,” Journal of Social Policy 38 (2009), 515.

111 Prostitution Reform Act, 2003, s 3(a)(b)(c).

112 The certification of brothel-operators was intended to reduce the chance of organized crime or exploitive ‘criminals’ becoming involved in operating brothels and victimizing workers; see Prostitution Law Review Committee, Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act, 2003 (New Zealand: Ministry of Justice, 2008).

113 Prostitution Reform Act, 2003

114 Ibid. at s 9(3).

115 G. M. Able, Decriminalisation: A Harm Minimisation and Human Rights Approach to Regulating Sex Work (Dunedin, New Zealand: University of Otago, Unpublished PhD Dissertation, 2010); Prostitution Law Review Committee, Report.

116 Prostitution Reform Act, section 11

117 Ibid. s 10

118 Ibid. s 14.

119 Ibid. ss 8 and 9.

120 Able, Decriminalisation; Prostitution Law Review Committee, Report.

121 While arguably still in flux, the experiences of gay and lesbian communities in North America may shed some light on the importance of removing structural stigma in order to facilitate a movement toward destigmatization.

122 Prostitution Reform Act, section 9.

123 The term was famously coined by Scarlot Harlot.

1 The authors wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the journal editor for their helpful comments. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Conference on Law and Society in Honolulu, Hawai’i, June 4–8, 2012.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Canadian Journal of Law and Society / La Revue Canadienne Droit et Société
  • ISSN: 0829-3201
  • EISSN: 1911-0227
  • URL: /core/journals/canadian-journal-of-law-and-society-la-revue-canadienne-droit-et-societe
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 64
Total number of PDF views: 249 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 810 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 25th November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.