Prostitution, always among the most intractable of problems, has become in today’s global economy one of the fastest-growing businesses in the world; its estimated worth is $32 billion a year. Hundreds of thousands of people a year around the globe are trafficked into the sex trade.

No one knows how many Canadian children and adults are coerced into prostitution, this supposed “victimless crime.” But Canada, to our shame, has become a major destination for sex tourism, according to a report last year by the U.S. State Department.

“In Montreal you can order a girl like a pizza,” Det.-Sgt. Dominic Monchamp said recently, to signify how the supply of sex workers in this city has multiplied in recent years. “You can choose her hair color, the color of her eyes, her measurements, her weight, and she will be delivered within half an hour.” …

As for a crackdown on clients, a just-published study by researchers at the New York University School of Law looked at the experience in Sweden. In 1999, Sweden became one of the world’s first jurisdictions to criminalize clients exclusively, enacting a ban on the purchase of sexual services.

Alas, criminalization of so-called johns didn’t work as well in practice as it sounded in theory. The New York researchers found that the year the ban was enacted the prevalence of street prostitution was roughly similar in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. But nine years after that, the number of women working in street prostitution in Norway and Denmark was three times higher than in Sweden. They think Sweden’s sex market may have just shifted across its borders. .. It didn’t reduce prostitution so much as it increased sex tourism.

As the researchers looked at various government attempts to control prostitution, they postulated that a key component to success might be in the severity of punishment meted out to the buyers. To work, sanctions might have to hit the client very hard, both in terms of criminal sanctions and loss of social reputation.

The Gazette, Montreal (Aug. 10)