Liberalization of Prostitution Laws in Canada

"We are not aliens. We are ordinary people and now we have rights," said Valerie Scott, 52, a former sex worker from Canada, following the ruling that struck down three laws that regulated sex work in Canada. The court ruling stated that these laws violated sex workers rights to life, liberty, and security as stated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Having worked on the streets and in massage parlors, Valerie Scott felt that the ruling symbolized a step towards granting full human rights to legal sex workers in Canada. The one hundred and thirty-one page ruling was greeted with celebration on the part of many sex industry workers from today and in the past. According to Teri-Jean Bedford, one of the sex workers who brought the case, "you can't imagine how happy I am today because I've been abused by the justice system for a very long time. The federal government must now take a stand and clarify what is legal and not legal between consenting adults in private." Following months of the case being in the spotlight of Canadian media and provoking controversy from the Canadian public and the government, it was a day of celebration for some, and moral outrage for others. “The decision reinforces the notion that sex is not an intimate and loving act but instead a commodity that can be bought and sold at will,” said Ruth Ross, executive director and general legal counsel for the Christian Legal Fellowship.

Through these various reactions we see reflected popular notions and arguments concerning these national changes. Canada, as a western, secular, developed nation that borders the United States, a powerful pseudo-secular nation where prostitution is all but totally illegal, is a unique site for analysis of rhetorical strategies in regards to prostitution, for these very characteristics. In this essay I examine the rhetorical and persuasive strategies embedded in the arguments surrounding the eventual liberalization of prostitution laws in Canada during the summer of 2010 by analyzing media sources, direct interviews with key players, and internet based manifestos in which safety, morality, and the concept of ‘progress’ were employed and constructed by both sides of the debate. The debate surrounding this case allows us a valuable insight into the current state and cultural appraisal of sex work in an economically developed, western nation that borders the United States. This case is especially significant because it allowed a forum to explore contemporary arguments for and against the sex industry, in an unprecedented age of media accessibility. I will show that these arguments in many ways are representative of current national and global concerns, and are often framed so as to appear in the best interest of women. In this particular context, the bodies of women sex workers become rhetorical sites onto which arguments are inscribed. Through the use of particularly relevant and culturally evocative terminology as well as the appropriation of the voices of women, these arguments worked tactically to make specific impacts on the Canadian people in Canadian courts. These frames will help illuminate the means by which these arguments were constructed, and then subsequently, how they were often applied to the bodies of women.This analysis is useful in order to identify the ways in which these specific terms and concepts were used to persuade the courts by tapping into broad cultural beliefs and ideologies, and also how the female bodies of prostitutes became rhetorical sites of the construction of ethics claimed by both sides of the debate.

The Oldest Profession on Earth

The business of selling sex for money has been well documented as "the oldest profession in the world," referenced in everything from Shakespeare to the Bible. However, for as long as the trade of selling sex or sexual activities for money has been practiced, it has also been consistently debated in nations around the world on grounds of moral outrage, humanist concern, and a variety of other pleas that decry prostitution, or the selling of sex as an inherently illicit activity. The arguments surrounding the practice of prostitution are multifaceted. On one side, sex workers demand rights for their safety, and the right to engage in their profession of choice. On another hand, concerned citizens argue that legal prostitution simply removes one more barrier allowing pimps and traffickers to more easily take advantage of women. On yet another hand, religious groups touting morality often feel that prostitution encourages illicit, extra-marital sexual activities that destroys families, marriages, lives and even the soul.

Nations across the West have tried various tactics to compromise with all sides of the argument. For instance, The Netherlands allows prostitution only in a certain district, known as the 'Red-Light District'. Sweden protects the rights of sex workers by criminalizing the purchase of sex, but not the selling of sex. As for the United States, prostitution of any form is illegal with the exception of a dozen counties in rural Nevada. In Canada it's legal to swap sex for cash but until the recent rulings, it was a crime to conduct such a deal in public, maintain a dwelling for prostitution or earn money as a pimp or madam, among other offences. It remains illegal to procure someone to have sex with another person, which restricts how escort services can operate.

Theoretical Framework

"The most notable development in our time in the province of language study is the heightened interest in semantics, which seems to stem from the realization that words, after all, have done things on their own, so to express it" (Weaver, in Language is Sermonic).

Richard Weaver remains today an influential scholar in the field of rhetoric although he wrote primarily during the mid 20th century. Weaver recognized the power of words to provoke emotions and action. Word choice is a powerful tool in the world of rhetoric, and Weaver identified fields of words, which he labeled 'ultimate terms.' Within the realm of ultimate terms are 'God terms,' which are those terms that are reflective of contemporary societal ideals and thus do powerful work to persuade an audience. In contrast, 'Devil terms,' are those terms that evoke disgust in an audience. The application of these terms lends a significant amount of potential persuasion to a rhetorical event. These terms shift with time as a result of changing cultural ideals and concerns, and thus the terms which become strong tools of persuasion within any discourse can be seen as reflective of current social priorities, thus potentially embodying god and devil terms. Applying this conceptual frame allows us to investigate modern appraisals of sex work in a "Western" context through a close analysis of the types of words being used, as well as by examining the work that those words do in constructing an understanding surrounding sex work in Canada.

"Moral, compassionate, committed movement members struggling to end the suffering and achieve rights for others were frequently contrasted with evil forces determined to oppress and exploit others. Animal rights, anti-apartheid, and pro-life activists contrasted their selflessness, high moral principles, and sacred goals with animal butchers, racists, and abortionists who were consumed with corporate and commercial greed and the search for ever larger profits" (Stewart, Championing the Rights of Others.)

In his article "Championing the Rights of Others," Stewart discusses the role of ego in "other directed social movements." Other directed social movements are those that seek to gain rights or 'make progress' for something other than the people directly involved in the movement itself. For example, animal rights activists and pro-life activists function within the realm of 'other-centered' social movements as their arguments revolve around the rights of some entity that exists outside of the activists themselves. In his discussion, Stewart examines the ways in which these other centered movements seek to lay claim to ethical superiority by 'championing the rights of others,' and thus layering on arguments for the validity of their argument by seemingly working for others, and not themselves.

Embedded within the arguments surrounding the liberalization of Canadian prostitution regulations there seems to be a blaring disconnect. As in the larger debate surrounding the legality and policy decisions affecting prostitution, privileged men on both sides seem to "champion" the rights of safety of women sex workers; albeit that safety is constructed in distinct manners. We find our competing arguments vying over who has the right to ethics, and which ethics are worthy, or can claim a greater moral stance. Both sides simultaneously paint themselves as virtuous by performing an argument that seeks to value the rights of women, cultural progress, and community support and safety. This moral variability generates an interesting rhetorical space and an increasingly complex argument terrain for the public to navigate and in which the public try to participate. Considerations of morality are central to any social movement, according to Stewart, and this can be quite easily mapped on to policy that affects the public. It is clear within the debate surrounding rights of sex workers versus the potentially exploitative nature of sex work itself that the bodies of women will be placed at the forefront. Both sides use these female bodies as sites onto which arguments are placed and can play out. "Championing the rights of others" will help to illuminate this phenomenon and understand how claiming these bodies and 'championing their rights' helps each side pursue a level of ethical superiority above the other.


“All the Robert Picktons out there will be very happy if this ruling is repealed.”

Arguments Concerning the Safety of Sex Workers.

Throughout the dialogue surrounding this court case a primary point of debate surrounded the safety of sex workers in general. "Safety," a term which falls into the realm of Weaver’s God terms, was used extensively on both sides of the argument although the concept of safety was constructed in vastly different ways that are reflective of the opposing attitudes towards sex work. For those in favor of the liberalization of prostitution laws, there was an emphasis placed on the need for sex workers to have a greater deal of protection because due to their professions they are in vulnerable positions. During a televised debate, House Leader Libby Davies spoke about the appeal that was being planned by government officials opposed to these changes, stating, “I mean for all the Robert Pickton’s out there, they will be so happy if [the appeal] happens, because these individuals are so stigmatized… by the system that we have, these laws do not work.” This argument challenges the potential appeal and equates it to manslaughter by reminding the listeners of the contemporary murders of sex workers in Canada. Robert Pickton, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 for murdering six women sex workers and accused of murdering over twenty others, is a character that not only evokes a sense of disgust from the rhetorical audience of the Canadian public, but is also a contemporary example of the dangers sex workers face in Canada without the protection of working in a “bawdy house,” and without the ability to hire any protection. Through this example the speaker pushes the audience to see the bodies of sex workers as vulnerable when denied access to these systems of support, and yet simultaneously as empowered women working in the sex industry. By conjuring the memory of a gruesome reality for her audience, Libby Davies rhetorically constructs the ‘safety’ of sex workers as the potential to have not only their bodies, but also their lives, exploited.

Other arguments surrounding safety that emanated from those in support of the liberalization of sex work are alluded to in the same comment made by Libby Davies above, that of the stigmatization of sex work in general. This social stigma, it was frequently argued, meant that sex workers who experienced victimization or assaults had little or no protection from the authorities, if they could even approach the police of courts to begin with. Katrina Pacey of Pivot Legal Society, an attorney working to challenge these laws early on in the debate stated, “You have sex workers who are subject to criminal laws, are seriously marginalized, suffer incredible discrimination and stereotyping,” which makes participating in any legal proceedings or seeking justice from an assault almost impossible. Sheri Kiselbach, one of the sex workers who started this movement and legal proceedings stated "I kept all the violence that I experienced hidden. I didn't feel safe to go to the police and talk to them about it. I don't think I was allowed to work safely. I had to always watch where I was. I couldn't just go into my apartment and do it there, feeling that I was safer there, when in fact it was against the law to do so." We see within this argument the ways that sex workers can be victimized in ways other than murder, and shows that the status quo hugely limits the resources for safety available to sex workers. When we consider this particular statement in the context of social movements, we can see how this campaign began in many ways as a self directed social movement, where sex workers began to speak up in order to improve the conditions for themselves as well as other sex workers. This, to a great extent altered as the case proceeded, with primarily male lawyers taken on the debate over which side of the debate could claim ethical dominance. Sheri Kiselbach, as a long time sex worker herself, takes ownership over the violence she experienced and through personal narrative works to move her rhetorical audience to a new attitudinal place. She uses her own experience of victimization, and thus her own body as a site of rhetorical argumentation. Her authenticity lends her credibility, and can be examined in stark contrast to the arguments for safety from the other side of the debate.

For those who opposed the liberalization of prostitution laws, the issue of safety was again constructed as an important consideration, and yet it was conceptualized in a vastly different way. It is apparent in examining arguments employed by those opposed to the measure that safety is constructed in a much broader sense, placing the safety of the public as well as the safety of sex workers in the center of the argument. Ruth Ross, executive director and general legal counsel for the Christian Legal Fellowship stated that the decision “has the potential to create a system that undermines the security of all Canadians.” Following this assertion that the safety of all Canadians was at stake, she addressed the danger to sex workers themselves saying, “prostitution and human trafficking are closely linked,” and noted that the ruling empowers pimps and will make it harder for police “to identify and protect those who have been forced into prostitution.” By alluding to the issue of human trafficking and exploitation of women, Ruth Ross ads a powerful Devil term, or rather, Devil practice, to the conversation surrounding safety. The persuasive ability of such an issue should not be underestimated especially in an age of globalization and an increasing awareness of the global human trafficking industry in the contemporary moment. Also embedded within this statement we can see how people outside of the sex industry are systematically appropriating the voices of sex workers. In the context of human trafficking, all sex workers are constructed as voiceless and exploited, and thus those opposed to the liberalization of prostitution laws attempt to speak for the voiceless, and can therfore claim the superior ethics. This act, what Stewart might call the ego function of social movements, allows these people who believe themselves to be speaking out in order to protect sex workers to feel validated, and morally superior; an important component when tackling any large social institution.

This phenomenon is especially apparent in the following statement, while the rhetor simultaneously demeans the persona of a sex worker and claims his own ability to protect these women. Brian Rushfeldt, president of Canada Family Action, said “the vast majority of street prostitutes are desperate drug addicts who are unlikely to screen their johns or set up offices. Removing consequences for men who prey on vulnerable women will make it easier for them to commit acts of violence on these women.” We can clearly see in this statement how Rushfeldt strategically removes the credibility and voices from these women by applying several culture devil terms such as ‘desperate’ and ‘drug addicts,’ before then claiming their bodies as sites onto which he can construct his own argument concerning their safety. The choices of words within this argument are equally significant as the stereotype of the sex-worker drug addict plays on contemporary anxiety about drug use and community safety in an age of greater access to drugs than ever before.

“The decision reinforces the notion that sex is not an intimate and loving act but instead a commodity that can be bought and sold at will.”

Arguments of Morality

Morality became a central issue in this debate as sides rhetorically battled over ethical authority. Central to this debate was the question of the morality of sex work overall as a trade, and then on a more micro level, the debate over whether or not these laws actively denied rights of safety to those engaged in the sex industry. When examining the arguments against the liberalization of sex work it becomes apparent that many of the moral ideals informing that opposition are rooted in religious foundation and a conservative governmental outlook. Brian Rushfeld, a key critic of the ruling laid out many of his arguments against on moral grounding. He stated, "the results of this ruling ought to make men happy. At least men who use and abuse women for sex and men who live off selling women for sexual use by perverts. Consenting or not, every woman is a daughter , mother or sister of someone. And the men who use women are fathers, brothers or sons of some family. Why would any right minded reasoned and just judge think that kind of misuse of women should be endorsed?" While Rushfeld again calls the audience’s attention to the safety of the women in question, he also bases his argument in a place of morality that would align well with the Judeo-Christian, and pseudo-feminist morality of many of his audience members. By using the provocative and frightening words ‘abuse,’ and ‘perverts,’ he pushes his audience to question the morals of both those in control of the sex work industry, namely, the pimps, and also the Johns who purchase sex for money. He constructs the women in question as objects that are controlled by their pimps and then subsequently by their patrons. Contrastingly, he then also uses familial relationships to humanize the people in questions while using these familial relationships with which his audience are familiar to further demonize their actions. Traditional roles of ‘daughter, sister,’ and ‘mother,’ and all the moral implications with which these words and imbibed, contrast greatly to the persona of a sex worker that he has constructed. He generates a sense of cognitive dissonance for listeners that pushes the audience to evaluate their own familial morals in the context of the larger social issue of sex work. Again within his argument we become aware of the ways in which he, as a privileged man who has never worked in the sex industry, appropriates the undervalued voices and identities of sex workers to as to place himself on a moral high-ground. He presents himself as a champion of family, safety, and as a watchdog over illicit activities that threaten these important moral values, all of which can be conceptualized as contemporary God terms, and social ideals. By presenting himself as in many ways, “other-centered” he can claim ethical superiority.

Many of the more vocal activists on the other side of this debate sought to separate their argument from arguments of morality, painting morality as subjective; and yet, in trying to remove morality from their argument structure, they also inherently tied their argument to morality and the popular judgments passed about the sex trade. During a news network interview, Alan Young, the lawyer who represented the three sex workers who challenged prostitution laws in Ontario superior court stated, “I cast no judgment on this trade. Obviously I’m not a person who thinks the law should be engaging in setting moral preferences, but I’m not telling Canadian what’s good or bad for them or whether working in the sex trade is good or bad, those are decisions that people will make. I just wanted to remove laws that really harm sex workers.” In this statement that seeks to separate his stance from the opposition whose arguments are firmly embedded in the foundation of morality, he still places himself on the moral high ground when he professes that his only concern is for the safety of sex workers. Through this argument he devalues the objections made by the opposition, and professes his own superiority by seeking to protect the women he was representing. Similarly, his comments concerning this case are peppered with descriptions of the laws the case challenged as ‘unfair,’ and ‘unreasonable,’ two words that tap into a listeners’ moral appraisal of fairness, and each individuals belief in their own inherent reason over others. In this context we can see the transition of this grass roots self-centered social movement as legal representation inevitably alters the movement to a place of other-centeredness. Alan Young becomes the voice of the voiceless in this context, and by stating that he passes no moral judgment, he places himself in a position of moral superiority, as he does not pass judgment at all- a foundation of many subjective moralities.

While these are just two examples of the use of popular notions of morality in this debate, morals have always been at the core of any discussions of sex work. It is clear that even in the contemporary moment, cultural norms of morality remain an important factor in decision making when it comes to any issue that involves sex and sexuality. Morality was cited throughout many arguments concerning this case, as some sought to represent what they saw as human rights, and others fought to uphold culturally determined morals that are based in family, safety, and tradition.

“One of the prostitutes described the ruling as emancipation for sex workers.”(BBC, 2010)

Arguments of ‘Progress’

One term that Richard Weaver originally identified in Post World War II America as a God term was that of ‘progress,’ and even today the value placed on the concept of progress remains an important part of the ideology of western, developed nations, including Canada. Whether that progress is through scientific innovation, improved quality of life, or enhanced civic infrastructure, people in the West are socialized to see progress as a ‘God term,’ and any movement backwards, in some cases any sense of staying still, to be a negative ‘Devil term,’ and existing at the cost of the momentum for constant progress. This concept of progress is employed extensively on both sides of the debate surrounding Canadian prostitution, seeking to move rhetorical audiences to places believing that either side of the debate would be a cultural ‘step in the wrong direction.’

Alan Young, the attorney representing the three Ontario sex workers, in speaking about the future ramifications and appeals following this ruling stated, “I hope it comes about at a time when this government is not in power because I’m afraid that they may move backwards and become more repressive to address the decision by saying, well ‘We outlaw everything,’ to avoid any arbitrariness.” In this powerful assertion he equates any challenge to this ruling as a movement backwards for the people of Canada. He places his own legal success as complimentary to the western need for progress, and constructs any action that would remove rights of sex workers or place greater restrictions on sex workers as ‘backward’ looking and movement away from the improvement that lies beyond every step of ‘progress.’ House Leader Libby Davies, another advocate for the liberalization of prostitution laws due to concern for the safety of sex workers, challenges the way things were by referring to the sense from both parties that previously the ‘status quo’ was unacceptable. “I was a part of an all party committee… about the safety of sex workers and even the conservative on that committee agreed that the status quo was unacceptable and was placing many individual sex workers at risk. And so, for the government to go blindly ahead with a very costly appeal that isn’t going to change anything, and will only take us back to the status quo, [is so dangerous].” Her argument revolves around not only the idea that the government appeal has the potential to force the country backwards to a place of lesser human rights, but she also constructs any forward movement by the government as ‘blind,’ and ‘costly,’ two words that could potentially provoke concern from many Canadian constituents. One of the sex workers represented by Young stated that the ruling was “emancipation for sex workers,” a statement that inherently ties the court ruling to a progressive move towards equal rights and places it on par with the abolition of slavery, and the womens’ rights movements, both powerful movements that play generally accepted public belief in the equality of races and sexes. This construction of the ruling as forward thinking progress, and assertion that changes which would place further limitations on sex workers as ‘backward looking,’ does significant work for Young, Davies, and the sex workers concerned in creating a persuasive argument. However, those on the other side of the debate employ similar tactics to paint a contrasting image.

Bob Deckert, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of justice, commented repeatedly during television interviews as well as in the print media that he felt this ruling would take us back to a time, “where it is easier for the pimps and the bikers to take advantage and victimize these women.” By again using the bodies of the women sex workers, and placing his argument under the realm of concern for safety he pushes his audience to believe that this ruling was a indeed a move, but a move back to times where women were even more likely to be victimized than in the age of Robert Pickton. Even beyond this argument, many politicians opposed to this ruling conceptualized the ruling as a movement backwards in regards to community safety, touting that the children in communities (the future of progress of this country) will be at risk of living next to brothels that could open in their neighborhoods. In this way the ruling is constructed through their rhetorical choices as a move backwards for community safety issues. By incorporating in these argument both the voices of sex workers, in regards to safety, and the voices of children, in regards to community security, we see yet another glaring example of how in this debate men on both sides of the argument appropriate the voices of devalued identities in society in order to create a platform of superior morality, ethics, and the social movement ego of virtue.


It is clear that throughout the debates surrounding the controversial ruling that sought to liberalize Canadian prostitution laws, both sides of the argument sought to appeal to common themes valued by the Canadian public, but constructed the path towards these ideals differently so as to favor their argument. Issues such as safety of sex workers and communities, morality, and progress played important roles as those for and against the ruling employed specific provocative terminology to evoke a particular rhetorical response from the audience. Not only did the key players employ persuasive terminology but also, via appropriation of the voices and concerns of female sex workers, they sought to claim ethical superiority over their opposition by performing different conceptualizations of sex worker safety. This action generated an interesting transformation of what was originally a self-directed social movement; to an other-oriented social movement as the issue was placed prominently in the public sphere.

These findings indicate that in a contemporary setting, many debates that have consistently surrounded sex work remain salient even in a developed, Western, secular nation such as Canada. Clearly, one core concern is that of safety and security for everyone from sex workers to families. Similarly, a Judeo-Christian conception of morality plays an important role as people navigate their own appraisals of morals surrounding the sex industry in general. Finally, as fits with the grand narrative of the West, a sense of continued development, and progress is seen as essential for Canadians. People want to feel that there is movement forward for everyone involved. Further research might seek to investigate other forms of persuasion or other rhetorical devices used during this debate in comparison to discussions surrounding sex work in other nations or in the past, so as to better understand the most effective devices employed in shaping public perceptions of sex work and attitudes towards prostitution in the West. Whether one is in support of or against the sex industry, it is undeniable that the recent actions in Canada may have long standing ramifications in other Western nations that will experience challenges to their sex work regulation, and those who seek to stand up for the rights of women-- on either side of the fence.

Initial Research and Citations