While Canada’s current prostitution laws are meant to protect vulnerable sex workers, some in Victoria’s sex trade say they’re hurting more then they’re helping.

The country’s most recent laws, introduced by the then-Harper government in 2014, had the stated goal of ultimately ending prostitution by targeting pimps, companies advertising sex and especially those buying sex.

But selling sex itself is not a crime, and that’s why the Victoria Police Department says its approach to prostitution laws on the streets or indoors is complaint-driven.

The department has even introduced two dedicated officers to check in on sex workers to build trust with some of the city’s most marginalized, stigmatized and endangered residents.

“We all want what’s best for them. We don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” says Const. Allison Johnson, one of two officers who provide support to sex workers.

Ultimately, police want to make sure more sex workers feel comfortable reporting violence.

“Enforcement of the criminal code isn’t our priority as a department,” said Johnson. “Our priority is making connections with the workers out on the street, keeping in mind that these are likely people who have been victimized in the past and are being victimized.”

Statistics obtained by CTV News support that.

Victoria police have only recommended charges for prostitution-related offences three times in the past two years, and in all three cases the charges were against clients.

In all of the three cases, there were also allegations of additional sex crimes, and no client simply caught paying for sex has been charged.

“We don’t want to arrest anyone who’s treating you with respect. We want to target the people who are going out there and preying on sex workers,” said Johnson.

Still, critics of the current law say whether enforced or not, it’s hurting the workers it’s supposed to protect.

“By criminalizing the johns, they then wish to prevent apprehension by the police, so they’re going to go to darker places, places with less monitoring by the authorities,” said lawyer Paul Pearson.

It’s a reality felt by sex workers on Victoria’s streets who are forced to follow clients into the shadows for money.

“They need to be away from the public eye and in the dark, and who’s to say that it doesn’t go wrong?” said Roxy, a sex worker who spoke with CTV News this winter.

It’s because of that danger organizations like Peers Victoria, along with police, try to provide shelter for vulnerable workers as well as free meals, clothes, harm reduction kits and emotional supports.

“There’s a lot more violence than there was 10 years ago. It’s shocking to me actually how much it’s changed in 10 years,” said Thea Cunningham, an outreach worker with Peers.

Workers like Katrina say without those organizations, many would feel less safe because of those laws intended to protect them.

“If it wasn’t for these women coming out, there would be a lot of women out, like gone, for a long time. They wouldn’t come back,” she said.

It’s another hard reality for sex workers, who in Victoria, number in the thousands.

CTV News contacted Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice, for comment on the current prostitution laws.

Her office said it is committed to reviewing the impact of the law on the safety of sex workers – and it’s already gathering feedback from workers as part of that review. 

Part four in Robert Buffam's four-part series. To watch and read the full "Sex Sells" series, click here.