Former prostitutes and their advocates are calling for clients of sex workers to be prosecuted, saying the decriminalisation of the industry has failed them.
Freedom from Sexual Exploitation director Elizabeth Subritzky told Parliament’s justice and electoral committee the only solution to the damage that prostitution caused, and the violence it created, was to prosecute buyers of sexual services through a reform of prostitution laws.
The Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised brothels, escort agencies, and soliciting when it narrowly passed into law by one vote in 2003.
The act not only encouraged more men to buy sex, but transformed prostitution into an acceptable, even attractive job for young, poor women in New Zealand, Subritzky said.
The petition, with 2910 signatures, calls for a law change which will make the purchase of sexual services illegal, extending the existing law which enables clients of underage prostitutes to be prosecuted.
One former prostitute told the committee her 16 years on the streets as a sex worker began when she was just 12, after a toxic family life exposed her to drugs, and emotional, verbal and at times physical abuse.
“Me and my cousins would roam the streets and scab money for food. It was then when I was approached by a gentleman who said that if he gave me money to feed myself and younger cousins, in exchange I was to give him oral sex.
“It wasn’t until I was 14 that prostitution became full time from then on” she said.
Prostitution then became her life for the next 14 years.
“That’s all I did, day in and day out, public holidays, Christmases, birthdays, I was out there.”
Incarcerated for long periods during this time, she turned back to prostitution upon release “because that’s all I knew and all I was good at doing in order to survive, I didn’t know any other way.”
“It was a dark life I was living – violent, extremely dangerous, the constant abuse, and fear of not knowing whether or not you were going to make it through the night when you have gangs or thugs going around the streets doing the girls over, beating them for their earnings which the gangs call rent.”
Brutally beaten and left for dead a number of times, the woman said “being raped and sometimes gang raped came with the job”.
“This was a really dark time in my life, a time that I’ll never visit again.”
Subritzky said the tragic circumstances many women were born into led them to sell themselves to survive.
“Each of the women who has spoken regrets entering the sex industry.
“If they could push a replay button for their lives with the wisdom of hindsight they would not choose to sell their bodies in prostitution.
“I know many women who would never have entered if it were illegal for men to buy their bodies.”
Other former prostitutes who spoke to the select committee described their substance abuse as a way of switching off while working, often to the point of blackout.
One used alcohol as a coping mechanism for the sexual abuse suffered during her early life, and said one day “something just snapped inside of me”, and she turned to prostitution, aged 32.
“I didn’t care what happened to me any more and thought I may as well get paid for having sex.
“I was raped once and scared many times. Each time I did it I never knew if I was going to be raped or even murdered.”
She has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, and is undergoing therapy.
The woman urged the adoption of the Nordic Model advocated by Subritzky, because “the law at the moment isn’t working.”
The Nordic Model – adopted in Sweden and Iceland – penalises the demand for commercial sex while decriminalising the prostitutes themselves.
The desire to reduce violence against women underpinned the Nordic Model, Subritzky said.
Committee chairman Scott Simpson said the committee would consider the petition and release a report next year.
“That will give us plenty of time to carefully consider what was presented to us today.
“In particular, the submissions presented by the anonymous women were very, very powerful.”