The Ontario Superior Court shook things up with its decision that the current laws that constrain an otherwise legal activity (selling sex for money) “force prostitutes to choose between their liberty interest and their right to security of the person.” The decision will likely be appealed but it is worth considering how the issue will play out because over the past twenty years, public opinion has shifted from being largely opposed to the legalization of prostitution to a more divided position.

When Canadians were asked about prostitution 15 years ago by Environics, the majority position (55%) was that prostitution should be illegal (for a review of the POR see the 5 page report by clicking on the picture). By 2005, opinions had shifted decidedly and a slim majority (50.6%) now endorsed the view that prostitution should be legal.

In fact, it appears that support for legalization is largely driven by agreement with the idea that the current legal framework is at least partially responsible for a number of negative outcomes (including harm to prostitutes) than a laissez faire approach to sexual morality. Importantly, this is consistent with the reasoning of the Court in striking down the provisions of the Act.

While prostitution no doubts strikes a moral and ethical chord with Canadians, many Canadians, understand that the effect of the current laws is to expose prostitutes to danger. A fact that the Picton case in B.C. has driven home over the past few years.

Given that the issue affects few Canadians directly, public opinion is unlikely to be impassioned by the policy and court discussion. That said, the issue is available as part of a law and order agenda or could be swayed if public discource moves away from discussions about protecting prostitutes from harm to other considerations.

Interestingly, the distance that most Canadians have from prostitution can mean two different things: On the one hand, they are able to suspend the fear factor that can often drive a law and order agenda because they are unlikely to be victims. On the other hand, because they have no interest or direct experience they might be moved by spurious or ideological arguments. How do you think it will play out?