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October 18, 2010

Prostitution may be the world's oldest profession. But a recent Ontario court decision striking down the country's laws against prostitution does more than recognize the inevitable. It will bring harm not only to the sex trade workers, but also to the johns, the families of the johns and neighbourhoods. If the Supreme Court of Canada upholds the ruling, the common good of the country will be undermined.

There is moral harm and there is physical harm. It is now distinctly unpopular to talk about moral harm. But the tacit endorsement of the sale of sexual favours legitimizes immoral behaviour and is corrosive to the welfare of society.

To be sure, the current situation is full of hypocrisy. Prostitution is legal; solicitation, pimping and the operation of a bawdy house are not.

Several cities, including Edmonton and Calgary, license massage parlours even though it is understood that they also sell sexual services.

Yet, despite the massage parlours, street prostitution here remains widespread. Despite the legalization and regulation of prostitution in countries such as the Netherlands and Australia, illegal prostitution, human trafficking, organized crime and violence against sex trade workers have increased. In the Netherlands, there are 8,000 legal prostitutes and an estimated 17,000 outside the regulated sector.

How is that possible? It is possible because the tacit endorsement of immoral activity by the state contributes to making that activity more widespread.

It is often glibly stated that morality cannot be legislated. Yet, that is exactly what laws do. Without moral norms to uphold, there would be little law. Not everything immoral should be illegal, but that which is illegal is (or ought to be) immoral.

Sweden has reduced prostitution and the amount of human trafficking by prosecuting the johns. As Conservative MP Joy Smith notes: "They try to cut off demand by prosecuting the buyer." As liberal a country as Sweden is reputed to be, it recognizes the harm done by prostitution and traces a possible path for Canada.

The federal and Ontario governments have rightly decided to appeal the Ontario Superior Court ruling. Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson recognizes that prostitution "harms individuals and communities."

Ontario Attorney-General Chris Bentley says the current laws "protect people from being lured or coerced into prostitution, they protect people from being under the domination of those who would prey, and they protect communities from the adverse effects of prostitution-related activities."

The dominatrix who called the court ruling "emancipation day for sex trade workers" was wrong. If left to stand, the ruling would only increase the numbers who are exploited. It would also send a very unfortunate message about what is morally right and wrong.