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On December 20, 2013, sex workers were jubilant. The Canadian Supreme Court unanimously struck down three anti-prostitution laws because they endangered the safety of prostitutes. The obsolete laws prohibited brothels, communicating with clients or potential clients in public, as well as prevented anyone from living off the earnings of a prostitute. Technically, selling sex is legal in Canada but a slew of laws regulate the activity. Now there were three less of them…at least, for the moment.

I was skeptical of the sudden loosening because it came with a mandate for Parliament to produce replacement legislation in one year’s time. That meant further regulation, and the focus on safety indicated the type to expect. Namely, European-style laws that purported to protect prostitutes by penalizing the men who ‘exploited’ them: pimps and johns.

A February 7th headline in CBC News announced “Sex workers fear new prostitution laws will compromise safety.”  The article explained that Parliament did, indeed, intend to draft legislation based on the so-called “Nordic model of prostitution,” which makes it legal to sell sex but illegal to buy it or for prostitute-associates to live off the proceeds.

The Nordic model is considered progressive because it ‘protects’ the prostitute. But the opposite is true. It is a direct attack upon the prostitute which violates her rights and endangers her safety. In general, such laws do not punish men who beat, rape, or brutalize a prostitute. They usually make no reference to physical abuse, only to financial arrangements. They target those who receive money from or who give money to the prostitute; those who economically associate with her become criminals.

This violates the rights of a prostitute in various ways. Anti-pimping laws criminalize anyone who makes a living off her earnings, including her husband, other family members and friends. In Europe and America, it is common for police to violate a prostitute’s rights – for example, to compel her to become an informant – by harassing or threatening to arrest such “associates.” Moreover, anti-pimping laws make prostitutes more reluctant to speak out politically or become otherwise involved in community matters.

The laws also form a barrier to sex workers who wish to marry and ease out of the business. A husband becomes legally vulnerable, even if he shares the household expenses on an equal footing. Ah, but what if the man is fully dependent on the prostitute’s earnings? Isn’t that reprehensible? Prostitute advocates quickly point out that other women support their husbands and, yet, no one passes laws against living off the proceeds of a waitress or a lawyer. Why are prostitutes singled out from all other women to have their private lives so regulated?

The laws also make prostitutes less safe. Pimps often provide services for and protection to prostitutes. For example, they drive women to appointments, wait in the car, and know when to worry if the woman does not return. They copy down the license plates of cars into which street walkers climb, which provides some safeguard against the women simply disappearing.

Laws against johns endanger prostitutes on the street. These women are the most vulnerable of prostitutes because they lack the safety of working indoors and they are much more likely to have a drug habit that induces them onto the street despite risks. How do laws against johns make them more vulnerable? Consider just one dynamic. Non-violent men are far more likely to be afraid of and discouraged by the prospect of being arrested than are psychopaths. This is especially true of family men or those who have a respected position in their communities. A minister, a lawyer, a teacher, a psychologist, a doctor…these are men who have a great deal to lose by being arrested and having the arrest publicized, as it often is. They are understandably reluctant to take the risk.

The result: there will be fewer johns who are merely looking for sex. There will not necessarily be fewer women selling sex, however, especially on the street level where driving forces like drug-use keep the numbers high. With a smaller pool of customers for whom to compete, these women may act with less caution; for example, they may be more willing to get into cars even if their instincts are bristling. On the other hand, there will be as many physically abusive men and criminals in the john pool because a person who is willing to beat or to kill a prostitute is unlikely to be discouraged by the prospect of being charged with the comparative minor ‘crime’ of buying sex. The CBC article itself admitted, “Norway’s Ministry of Justice did a report on sex work in 2004 [after introduction of the Nordic model] that indicates the preferred clients have moved to the internet, but the dangerous ones stayed on the streets.”

The CBC article quoted Brenda Cossman, a law professor at University of Toronto who sketched some of the problems created for sex workers by the Nordic model. For one thing, in Europe, the laws typically push prostitutes out of mainstream areas. Cossman explained, “Those on the streets are working in very, very risky conditions because they go further into remote areas. They have to do the negotiation very quickly. It doesn’t give them any time to assess risk.” The quick negotiation will also result from a client’s unwillingness to linger a moment longer than necessary.

Prostitutes realize the Nordic model endangers them. One reason: in Canada, it is currently common practice for sex workers to screen their clients in advance to seeing them. They know the client’s name and phone number. Under the Nordic model, however, clients have more incentive to remain anonymous rather than risk arrest. One prostitute complained, “We’ll have to accept calls from blocked numbers. We won’t know who we’re seeing.” She called the situation “a gift to sexual predators.”

Laws against the economic associates of prostitutes are likely to increase the abuse and death rates of the women. The best way – and, perhaps, the only sure way – to protect prostitutes is to decriminalize all aspects of the activity and allow them to access fully the legal rights that other women enjoy.