Attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge of prostitution and the law in Canada.

AuthorMorton, Heather

The legal status of prostitution-related activities recently came into the public spotlight after three of Canada's prostitution laws were deemed unconstitutional and struck down by an Ontario Superior Court judge (Bedford v Canada 2010). Both the Ontario and federal governments subsequently appealed this decision, and the future of the laws regarding communicating for the purposes of prostitution, keeping a common bawdy house, and living off the avails of prostitution are uncertain.

Potential changes to these laws raise questions about Canadians' opinions with respect to prostitution and its legal status. Prostitution is technically legal in Canada; however, several laws make it difficult to engage in prostitution without breaking the law. For example, under the bawdy-house laws (Criminal Code, s 210 and s 211), it is illegal to keep or be found within a common bawdy house, defined in section 197 as "a place that is kept, occupied, or is resorted to by one or more persons for the purposes of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency." This law makes it illegal for anyone to engage regularly in prostitution within the same establishment. As a result, it is illegal for prostitutes to work out of their homes, in brothels, or in massage parlours. In conjunction with a law that prohibits communicating in a public place (i.e., on the streets) for the purposes of prostitution (Criminal Code, s 213), these laws make it difficult for people to engage in prostitution legally. The Criminal Code further prohibits living on the avails of prostitution as well as procuring individuals into prostitution (Criminal Code, s. 212). This also affects the legality of indoor prostitution venues, which involve profiting from others' involvement in prostitution. Finally, it is also illegal to buy or attempt to buy sexual services from those who are under the age of 18 (Criminal Code, s. 212[4]). The average age of entry into prostitution is between the ages of 14 and 16 (Koverola, Nadon, and Schluderman 1998); therefore, many enter prostitution at an age in which it is illegal to do so.

The paradox that prostitution is technically legal but difficult to conduct in a legal manner may result in confusion about Canada's prostitution laws. This may be exacerbated by the fact that prostitutes are clearly visible on the streets and known indoor-prostitution venues appear to stay open without apparent legal action or consequences, potentially leading the public to believe that soliciting, bawdy-house, and pimping laws do not exist. Moreover, the lines dividing legal associated activities, such as stripping, and illegal aspects of prostitution are becoming increasingly blurred (Farley 2004). For instance, in many strip clubs customers can legally purchase lap dances in which strippers grind their genitals against customers while wearing little or no clothing. The similarities between providing or paying for this activity and providing or paying for sexual services within an indoor-prostitution venue may lead some people to believe that the latter activities are legal in Canada.

As a result, a significant proportion of Canadians may be unaware of the actual nature of prostitution laws in Canada, potentially leading some individuals to engage in prostitution activities with no awareness of the illegality of their behaviours. In support of this, Wortley, Fischer, and Webster (2002) found that 17% of Ontario men who had been arrested under the communication law in Ontario were apparently unaware that it was illegal to talk to a prostitute about buying sex.

With respect to attitudes relating to the legal status of prostitution, Wortley et al. (2002) found that almost half of their sample 'reported believing that prostitution should be illegal--a curious finding given that the sample comprised men who had been arrested for soliciting sex. The participants in this study may have been influenced by the fact that the study was being conducted as part of an offender-diversion program. However, these findings were in contrast with those of Sawyer, Metz, Hinds, and Brucker (2001), whose sample of customers in the United States, who had also been arrested for soliciting sex and who were also mandated to take part in a psycho-educational program designed to educate them about the impact of prostitution on prostitutes, agreed with statements that prostitution should be decriminalized and legalized.

With respect to beliefs about prostitution more generally, Wortley et al. (2002) found that 57% of their sample believed prostitution is dangerous, 45% believed that most prostitutes have a drug problem, 37% believed prostitutes are forced by pimps to engage in prostitution, and 29% believed most prostitutes enjoy what they do. Kennedy, Klein, Gorzalka, and Yuille (2004) and Sawyer et al. (2001) found that beliefs about prostitution varied by ethnicity, with men of Indo-Asian descent being significantly less likely than men of other ethnicities to endorse the statements, "There is nothing wrong with prostitution" and "No matter what society tries to do prostitution will always exist." Sawyer et al. (2001) also found that most men in their sample endorsed inaccurate and negative beliefs about prostitution, with endorsement varying with age, ethnicity, and sexual satisfaction.

Although research has been conducted with men who have been convicted of prostitution-related offences, no research has been conducted to assess the awareness and opinions of other groups or constituencies in the population about the legal status of prostitution or the relationship between views on legalization of prostitution and more global beliefs and attitudes about the sex trade. As prostitution is a controversial social and political issue, understanding the relationship between attitudes and beliefs about prostitution and knowledge and beliefs about current prostitution law is an important component of understanding opinions relating to prostitution.

Therefore, the first aim of the present study was to investigate knowledge of, and attitudes toward, current Canadian prostitution laws in a group of undergraduate university students at a culturally diverse western Canadian university. The second aim was to look at the beliefs individuals have regarding different forms of prostitution. Third, the extent to which demographic variables predicted knowledge of prostitution laws and prostitution-related beliefs and the extent to which demographic variables predicted attitudes toward prostitution's legal status were examined.



Participants consisted of 154 female and 85 male undergraduate students from the University of British Columbia. All participants were at least 18 years old, with a mean age of 21.04 (SD = 3.02; range = 18-46). The majority of participants were of East Asian descent (54.4%), followed by Caucasian (30.1%), South Asian (6.7%), and Middle Eastern (4.6%) descent. The mean number of years spent in Canada was 14.86 (SD = 7.07). Participants had completed a mean of 14.86 years of education (SD = 0.98). The distribution of years in Canada, broken down by ethnicity, can be seen in Table 1. At the time of study participation, 59.7% of participants were single, 36.6% were in a committed...

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