Legalized prostitution: There’s no way to end demand for sex work. So why are Sweden and Canada trying?

It’s Time for Legalized Prostitution

It’s Time for Legalized Prostitution

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 31 2014 4:19 PM

It’s Time for Legalized Prostitution

There’s no way to end demand for sex work. So why are Sweden and Canada trying?

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While the regulation of sex work hasn’t been a high priority for Americans in recent years, Canada has drawn inspiration from the Swedish model. In December of last year, the country’s Supreme Court ordered Canada’s Conservative Party government to devise a new set of rules and regulations that would do more to protect sex workers. As a consequence, the Canadian government recently followed Sweden by introducing legislation that would, among other things, make it very clear that prostitution was to be discouraged and deterred.

Yet the new Canadian bill would go further than the Swedes do by making it illegal for sex workers to advertise their services, or to communicate their interest in selling sex in a place where a child might plausibly see or hear that communication. Earlier this summer, Canadian sex workers took to the streets in protest. Their argument, again, is that these supposed protections don’t actually protect women. “This will simply move sex workers out into more isolated and more marginalized areas of the city, and in many ways this legislation is a gift to sexual predators,” the head of a sex worker assistance group called Maggie’s told the Canadian Press. “It means they can’t work in groups to watch out for one another and say, ‘I’ll be back in half an hour.’ And people who would do women harm, who would do sex workers harm, will know this.”

Nevertheless, it’s easy to see why the Canadian government has decided to go this route. Legalizing prostitution appears to be somewhat more popular in Canada than in the United States. An Angus Reid survey conducted in June found that Canadians were split 45–45 on whether buying sex should be legal. But the gender gap on legalization was yawning: Fifty-six percent of men believe that buying sex should be legal, while 55 percent of women believe that it should not be. Canada’s Conservatives attract far less support from women than men, and embracing the Swedish model seems like a shrewd way to shore up female support for the party by uniting feminists and social conservatives. What should worry Canadians is that the fundamental premise of the Swedish model—that it is possible to “end demand”—is profoundly flawed.


As Melissa Gira Grant, author of Playing the Whore, has argued, sex work is best understood as a service industry job. One of the more discomfiting facts about the modern market economy is that it’s not just sex workers who are selling the illusion of intimacy. Few would deny that being conventionally attractive and mildly flirtatious would help you earn more tips as a server in a restaurant. Indeed, we have reliable evidence that these qualities help women and men alike earn more in a wide range of professions. Sexiness aside, there are many jobs in which it pays to be caring and attentive. Paid emotional labor of this kind is central to the entertainment and hospitality sectors. And as the population ages, more and more households outsource the work of meeting the needs of young children and aging parents to professionals, for whom a central part of the job description is to be, or to appear to be, warm and loving.

Something similar is true of sex workers, who provide a real service to clients who, for whatever reason, find themselves in need of paid sex. This is not to suggest that johns are morally praiseworthy. One imagines that many of the men who purchase sexual services find themselves unable to experience physical intimacy via other means, in which case it is cruel to assume that their motives are necessarily predatory. And then there are men who are wary of investing every sexual encounter with emotional significance, and who appreciate the transactional nature of sex work. It’s not entirely clear that it is preferable for these men to manipulate their way into getting the casual sex they crave rather than have them pay for it.

Suffice it to say, I haven’t exhausted all of the imaginable reasons why one might choose to purchase sex—the world’s oldest profession has stood the test of time for a reason. (Or rather, a whole bunch of reasons.) “Ending demand” is a pipe dream, as Sweden has demonstrated in its decade-and-a-half-long effort to do so. The arrival of the Swedish model to Canada should give us pause here in the United States. We should listen to what sex workers in Canada are saying about the consequences of criminalization, and look at the positive results in Rhode Island when that state accidentally decriminalized indoor prostitution. If legalizing sex work really does decrease the rate of sexual assault and the spread of venereal disease, as the latest evidence strongly suggests, we need to have a much better reason for banning it than the fact that we hold prostitutes and johns in such low esteem.

Reihan Salam is a columnist for Slate.