New research shows criminalization of clients endangers Vancouver sex workers and violates their human rights

BMJ Open study finds criminalization and policing of clients in Vancouver
reproduces the same risks for violence, abuse, and poor health for sex workers as previous criminalization model in Canada

Legal analysis of the research concludes criminalization of clients creates an unacceptable risk of harm and violates sex workers’ constitutional right to security of the person

Vancouver, B.C. [June 3, 2014]—Criminalizing clients endangers the health and safety of the most marginalized sex workers in Vancouver, Canada, according to a newly published study in one of the top global health journals, British Medical Journal (BMJ) Open.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

Between January and November 2013, researchers from the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative (GSHI) of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) conducted in-depth interviews with 31 street-based sex workers in Vancouver to examine sex workers’ experiences and negotiation of safety and health following the implementation of new Vancouver Police Department enforcement guidelines introduced in January 2013. The new VPD policy prioritizes sex workers’ safety over arrest while continuing to focus enforcement on clients and third parties. The approach of criminalizing clients, but not sex workers, is often referred to as the “Swedish” or “Nordic” model and has received substantial attention in recent months given the federal government’s intention to propose new prostitution laws before the end of the year.

Following the new VPD enforcement policy, sex work-related arrests increased from 47 in 2012 to 71 in 2013. Despite the policies express commitment to sex workers’ safety, the research suggests that there was no decrease in rates of work-related physical or sexual violence after policy implementation, with 24% of 275 street-based sex workers in 2012 experiencing violence compared to 25% of 236 women in 2013.

Despite the welcomed shift away from police targeting sex workers, sex workers in the study describe how the continued policing of clients recreated the same harms as the current criminalized model in Canada by severely limiting sex workers’ control over their health and safety. “Harassing the clients is exactly the same as harassing the women. You harass the clients and you are in exactly the same spot you were before. I’m staying on the streets. I’m in jeopardy of getting raped, hurt.” says Jasmine, a sex worker, in the BMJ Open report.

“The findings clearly show that criminalization of clients in Canada risks recreating the same devastating harms to the health, safety and human rights of sex workers as the last two decades of missing and murdered women,” says Dr. Kate Shannon, senior author of the BMJ Open report, GSHI director and associate professor of medicine at UBC. “Sex workers in the research were very clear: Where clients continue to be targets of police, sex workers’ ability to protect themselves from violence and abuse or access police protections is severely limited.”

Sex workers interviewed in the study said that criminalizing and policing clients increased their risks for violence, abuse, and health-related harms, including HIV infection, due to:  
•    an inability to screen prospective clients or negotiate the terms of transactions;
•    displacement to isolated spaces; and
•    an inability to access police protections.

A second report and legal analysis of the BMJ Open research was also released today by Pivot Legal Society, Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) and GSHI. The report, entitled “My Work Should Not Cost Me My Life: The Case Against Criminalizing the Purchase of Sex In Canada“ provides a legal analysis of the evidence from the BMJ Open research, as well as from Sweden and Norway regarding the impacts of criminalization of clients on sex workers’ safety. The report concludes that given the harms created by this model of criminalization and the reasoning from Canada v. Bedford, there is a strong case to be made that a law that prohibits the purchase of sexual services would violate sex workers’ constitutional right to security of the person and should be struck down.

"This important new research concludes that using the criminal law to target clients perpetuates the life-threatening conditions that sex workers faced under the laws that were struck down in the Bedford case,” says Katrina Pacey, litigation director at Pivot Legal Society. “If this approach were to become the law in Canada, it would create the same unconstitutional harms the Supreme Court found are a violation of sex workers’ right to security of the person."

“This research shows how important it is to have sex workers voices and experiences at the forefront of any legislative change,” said Lorna Bird, co-author of the BMJ Open report and board member of SWUAV, an organization run by and for street-based sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Related materials:
•    A summary and the BMJ Open publication is available here:
•    A summary and the constitutional analysis of the research is available here:

For additional information or to request interviews, please contact:

Kevin Hollett, BC-CfE

Phone: 604-682-2344 ext. 66536

Mobile: 778-848-3420

Email: [email protected]

Shadi Elien, Pivot Legal Society
Phone: 604-671-0212
Email: [email protected]


About the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS

The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) is Canada’s largest HIV/AIDS research, treatment and education facility and is internationally recognized as an innovative world leader in combating HIV/AIDS. The BC-CfE works in close collaboration with key provincial stakeholders, including health authorities, health care providers, academics from other institutions, and the community to decrease the health burden of HIV and AIDS. By developing, monitoring and disseminating comprehensive research and treatment programs for HIV and related illnesses, the BC-CfE helps improve the health of British Columbians living with HIV.

About the Gender and Sexual Health Initiative
The Gender and Sexual Health Initiative (GSHI) is a program of the BC-CfE with the overall mission to ensure research of the highest scientific and ethical standard informs evidence-based policy and practice in gender, sexual health and HIV/AIDS and reduces health and social inequities among marginalized populations in Canada and globally. GSHI, on behalf of the BC-CfE, was an intervener in the Canada vs. Bedford case at the Supreme Court of Canada.

About Sex Workers United Against Violence
Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) is a peer-based organization of active and former sex workers who live and/or work in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. SWUAV came together in 2005, seeing a need for an organization that could speak directly from the perspective of women who do sex work about issues of their health and safety, as well as general living and working conditions. SWUAV is committed to improving the working conditions for sex working women in the DTES of Vancouver, including fighting against poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, criminalization and other forms of oppression that contribute to the violence and lack of safety for sex workers. In 2007, SWUAV filed a constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws and was an intervener in the case of Canada v. Bedford.

About Pivot Legal Society
Pivot’s mandate is to use the law to address the root causes of poverty and social exclusion. Our name is a metaphor for our approach to social change – by making the most tangible violations of human rights the focal point of our efforts, we exert maximum pressure in order to shift society toward greater equality and inclusivity. Since 2002, Pivot has been actively campaigning for the rights of sex workers to live and work in conditions that promote their health, safety, dignity and human rights. Pivot was counsel in a constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws, and an intervener in the case of Canada v. Bedford.