For Hilla Kerner, it was a relief to hear that the Supreme Court had declared three of Canada’s prostitution laws as unconstitutional.
But Kerner, a spokesperson for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, told the Georgia Straight she was “troubled” by the landmark judgment released today (December 20), which struck down laws against keeping a bawdy‑house, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public for the purposes of selling sex. The country’s highest court gave Parliament one year to decide how to regulate prostitution.
“Women should not be punished for being in prostitution,” Kerner said by phone. “But we’re very worried by this ruling, unless there will be a new law—a better law—because it’s obvious that the current laws were not useful and not protective of women and, of course, not being upheld by the criminal justice system. But until then we are worried that men will basically now have permission to buy women’s bodies, to exploit women’s bodies, and to profit from women’s bodies.”
Kerner explained that Rape Relief supports the abolition of prostitution but opposes the criminalization of women in the sex trade. She called on MPs to come up with legislation that would criminalize male buyers of sex while offering “real opportunities” to women so they can exit the sex trade or avoid entering it in the first place. Such solutions include providing a guaranteed livable income and higher welfare rates, according to Kerner.
“Any parliamentarian who cares for women should support a law that on one hand prevents men from buying women and prevents men from pimping women, but on the other hand ensures women’s economic security, so they will not have to resort to prostitution,” Kerner said.
Earlier today, sex worker and advocate Susan Davis told the Straight that she would prefer to see the federal government not make any new laws on prostitution. She also spoke out against the Nordic model, which targets clients by criminalizing the purchase of sexual services and is used in Sweden.
“Kidnapping is illegal,” Davis said by phone from Vancouver. “Extortion is illegal. Unlawful confinement is illegal. Assault, rape, even human trafficking is specifically illegal. Why do we need two sets of laws to protect people?”
However, Kerner asserted that Vancouver’s “harm reduction” approach isn’t working and that Canada should look at models like Sweden’s. Her views are informed by years of working at Canada’s oldest rape crisis centre, which gets hundreds of calls every year from sex workers. She said she’s never met a woman who “willingly chooses” to work in the sex trade.
“I know some women will say it’s their choice,” Kerner said. “But I think that women who have a choice, they have a responsibility to choose something else. For the choice of the few, it will be a terrible mistake to sacrifice the many.”
As for the three prostitution laws that will become invalid in one year, Kerner explained that, on paper, they applied to both women and men. In practice, she noted, the laws were mostly enforced on women in the sex trade, who were harassed, arrested, and charged.
“The laws, to begin with, were problematic, because they did not differentiate between the women in prostitution and the men,” Kerner said. “But the application of the law was completely wrong. That’s how [serial killer Robert] Pickton was able to happen. Women were discouraged from complaining to the police. They were threatened and harassed and ignored. On the other hand, men like Pickton and other johns were allowed to walk free and keep continuing the violence.”