QotD: “COVID-19 puts women in New Zealand’s sex trade in more danger than ever; why isn’t the decrim lobby helping?”
On March 21, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country would go on lockdown in response to COVID-19. She explained:
“We are fortunate to still be some way behind the majority of overseas countries in terms of cases, but the trajectory is clear. Act now, or risk the virus taking hold as it has elsewhere.
We currently have 102 cases. But so did Italy once. Now the virus has overwhelmed their health system and hundreds of people are dying every day.
The situation here is moving at pace, and so must we.
We have always said we would act early, decisively, and go hard. And we will.”
Ardern introduced the four-tiered alert system the government would be using, to first Prepare to tackle the virus, then Reduce risk of community transmission, then further Restrict person-to-person contact, and finally Eliminate risk by imposing full quarantine.
By Monday, March 23rd, New Zealand moved to Alert Level 3 and prepared to move to Level 4 after 48 hours. Our borders are closed and people are being asked to stay home and remain two metres away from each other, for instance when “undertaking essential shops.” Essential services are still operating, and schools are closed except to the children of people who keep them running. Ardern has clarified that “there will be no tolerance” for breach of orders, adding:
“The police and the military will be working together, and there is assistance at the ready if required. If people do not follow the messages here today, then the police will remind people of their obligations, they have the ability to escalate if required, they can arrest if needed, they can detain if needed.”
Many New Zealanders take pride in Ardern’s leadership. The government has prepared financial packages for employees, businesses, and sole traders to reduce the financial burden as people are asked to self-isolate to stop the virus from spreading, and laid out the details on a Unite Against COVID-19 website.
Women’s Refuge, an organization that oversees a network of domestic violence safehouses throughout New Zealand, has acknowledged that one of the biggest concerns of the lockdown is that many women and children are not safe at home. Chief executive Dr. Ang Jury explained that, “although it’s clearly very necessary, self-isolating will likely mean an escalation of violence for many women.”
The alternative for many women would be to join the 34,000+ New Zealanders who suffer severe housing deprivation. Homeless women are more vulnerable than their male counterparts, also because of the high risk of sexual violence. For women, the threats of domestic violence, homelessness, and prostitution are connected, and many women in prostitution have suffered domestic violence as well as homelessness and transience.
This begs the question: what advice is the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) issuing in response to COVID-19? This is a question that needs to be asked for another important reason: prostitution also lends itself to the spread of disease. The Ministry of Health funds NZPC to the tune of $1.1 million per year ostensibly for this reason: to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The NZPC’s approach is to distribute condoms, pamphlets, and a 125-page manual titled, Stepping Forward, to “assist” prostituted women in dealing with the problem themselves. About half of Stepping Forward is dedicated to describing common STDs, using small, badly photocopied images of genital warts, gonorrhea, and chlamydia as they appear on men’s genitals.
A handbook produced by the Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Service advises women in the sex industry that, in the event of condom breakage, they should remove semen by “squatting and squeezing it out using vaginal muscle exertion. Fingers can be used to scoop.”
In 2005, a 24-year-old woman was strangled, bound, raped, run over, and killed after an argument with a john resulting from his refusal to use a condom.
Those who defend decriminalized prostitution often argue that completely eliminating the risk of the violence and disease involved with prostitution is not possible, because prostitution is inevitable and cannot be stopped, and because it is essential — some men simply cannot live without sexual access to women. So, offering women pamphlets and condoms, and normalizing prostitution by legitimizing it legally, is the best that can be done.
Yet after the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, NZPC updated the front page of its website to announce that prostitution must be halted by midnight on Wednesday. The page reads:
“COVID-19 INFORMATION: INSTRUCTIONS TO STOP PHYSICAL CONTACT SEX WORK BY MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY 25 MARCH 2020
NZPC recognises that sex work is work and is the main form of income for a number of people.
However, with New Zealand going to a Level 4 alert, sex workers are asked to comply with the requirement to stay at home during the four-week period of isolation indicated by the Government. Only those in essential services will be permitted to work. Sex work is not classed among the essential services (doctors, pharmacists, police, ambulance, fire, vets, food production, and supermarkets).
Therefore NZPC wants all sex workers to comply with the four-week closure.
Failure to comply could result in officials arriving at your place of work to enforce compliance.”
The message concludes with a link to the Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) website, and to the government’s Unite Against COVID-19 site.
There are a few concessions involved in this notification on NZPC’s website. One is that prostitution can be stopped — and immediately — if the political will is there and the need is considered urgent. The fact that the rate of sexual violence against women in prostitution is higher than that committed in any other context has simply never constituted an urgent enough threat. The second concession here is that men do not actually need prostitution — it is not essential, a human need, or a right. It is something men can live without.
There are also some assumptions underlying NZPC’s decision to target prostituted women with its instructions to “STOP PHYSICAL CONTACT SEX WORK BY MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY.” According to studies that NZPC helped to carry out, 72 per cent of these women are stuck in the sex industry due to circumstance. A 2007 survey conducted by NZPC to review the current laws showed that 10 per cent of women in prostitution say they “don’t know how to leave,” 8.5 per cent say they “can’t get help to leave,” 24 per cent “don’t know what else to do,” and 29.5 per cent “have no other income.”
Yet NZPC assumes that it is these very women who have the power and responsibility to shut down the industry. They assume it is the “supply,” not the “demand” — or more accurately, the victims, not the perpetrators — who should be threatened with state intervention in case of “failure to comply.” Will prostituted women be arrested? Are we going to see a return of the brothel raids that police used to carry out before the Prostitution Reform Act? Will this be endorsed by NZPC?
That the NZPC is putting full responsibility in the hands of these women, who have little if any alternative, and threatening them with police intervention if they fail to comply, demonstrates that the organization is not a feminist one, nor anything resembling a union standing for workers’ rights.
This response to COVID-19 highlights the fact that full decriminalization of prostitution does not actually protect women.
On Tuesday, the survivor-led organization Wahine Toa Rising (WTR) sent a letter to ministers in parliament asking, “What financial and other support is available for women and young people who are currently in prostitution,” and, “What measures are in place to ensure women and young people in prostitution are protected from catching or transmitting the COVID-19 virus?”
The least that a Ministry of Health-funded organization could do for women in prostitution in response to COVID-19 is to demand an allocation of funds from the government to help women exit the industry safely, and to insist on the banning of buying and pimping women, rather than threaten abused women into staying home, when they are part of a demographic that makes them especially likely not to have a safe home to go to.
NZPC tends to minimize the true hardships involved with prostitution. In a 2017 article announcing the launch of a safehouse to help women exit the sex trade, NZPC programmes coordinator Dame Catherine Healy claimed that only 10 per cent of women need assistance leaving prostitution. This does not agree with global research, survivor testimony, or NZPC’s own surveys.
This leads to another point: prostitution is an industry that profits from crisis, and this crisis may be no exception.
The workforce is gendered — this is the problem that pay gap campaigning points to. Care work tends to be feminized — 92 per cent of New Zealand’s nursing staff and 72 per cent of teaching staff are women. In industries and sectors that are not “feminized,” women tend to be paid less, considered more dispensable, and are more at risk of losing work and a living wage. In cases where companies are shedding staff, women will likely carry the burden disproportionately. Airlines, for instance, are likely to be sending stewardesses home as they reduce business.
This is how crisis tends to unfold and one reason why it typically leads to an expansion of the sex trade — because women still need to shelter and feed themselves and their children during economic crises. Men will exploit their increased dependence regardless of the circumstances. Hell, they are apparently already making corona virus-themed pornography.
If New Zealand’s sex trade expands because of women’s vulnerability and the economic fallout resulting from COVID-19, it goes without saying that this will lead to a spread of disease, and not only this respiratory illness. Syphilis is on the rise in New Zealand. In the year ending March 2019, 548 cases were reported, up from 82 in 2013.
Yet NZPC continues to simply hand out condoms and pamphlets and promote the legitimization of the sex trade. It offers no exit services, and, as stated, even undermines the need for them when other people take on the task. It does not protect women from danger. The advice NZPC offers women in Stepping Forward, in terms of “dealing with violent clients,” is:
“Make as much noise as possible to attract attention. Try calling FIRE, a passerby will probably pay more attention. If you wear a whistle around your neck, blow it in his ear.”
NZPC later says that “getting loud” can “backfire because some clients are just wanting you to do this so that they have an excuse.”
Before the lockdown was announced, on March 19, liberal news site The Spinoff released an article titled, “Covid-19: What happens when touching people is part of your job?” which included reference to prostitution. In it, Healy casually advised women in prostitution:
“There’s also cam work, but that’s not a big money earner generally. When you think we have several thousand sex workers at the moment, the best suggestion is for them to find alternative income.”
That week, Healy responded to an inquiry she received from a woman asking her for help by sending her a screenshot of the WINZ Job Seeker form, totally ignoring the fact that the nature of her job is to help women whose circumstances are desperate.
Prostitution is also correlated with family violence through pornography, of which camming is a form. The filming of prostitution to make pornography has been called a “public health crisis,” and in New Zealand, approximately 54 per cent of child abusers are known to use pornography. Many of these porn-consuming men will now be spending more time at home, with their children.
As Wahine Toa Rising founder Ally Marie Diamond says:
“Full decriminalization only protects the pimps, buyers, brothel owners, and those who profit from the sex trade. As COVID-19 has proven, women in the sex trade in New Zealand are not protected. They are not safer, they are ultimately in more danger now than they would have been prior to 2003. When are we going to start opening our eyes and waking up to what is happening around us? It really is time to look at it another way.”
Another thing COVID-19 has proven is that when a threat is considered urgent enough and the political will is there, the government and the New Zealand public are willing to commit to a course of action that will not just reduce but eliminate that threat.
While we are in isolation, many people will be reflecting more deeply on their lives and relationships. Prostitution and porn affect us all. They perpetuate rape and objectification and there is no end to how much and how deeply they affect sexual relations and the culture we live in. Right now, these industries and their normalization are contributing directly to a situation in which many women and children are unsafe, including at home, under quarantine.
Perhaps a few questions for us all to consider while we are on lockdown are these: isn’t men’s violence against women and children an urgent threat, worthy of eliminating? Can it end as long as rape is accepted as inevitable, and normalized and made profitable through prostitution and porn? What would it really look like for us, individually and collectively, if we took the steps necessary to eliminate the threat of men’s violence against women and children from our lives, and from our culture?
The New Zealand Ministry of Health accepted information about prostitution almost exclusively from the NZPC rather than from less biased sources. The lobbying success of the NZPC in promoting prostitution as work has resulted in passage of a law and also production of a Report (Prostitution Law Review Committee, 2008) intended tosupportthe law. The NZPC offers no programmatic support such as job training or housing advocacy for the large majority of those in prostitution want to escape it. The Report white washes or suppresses evidence that prostitution remains harmful to those in it even after its decriminalization (see the following paragraphs for details regarding the bias of the Report).
Governments are complicit in the prostitution of women when prostitution is defined as work and especially when government revenue is generated by prostitution. For example, the Philippines’ government grants visas to women who are known to be bound to prostitution but who are named “Overseas Performing Artists.” It’s likely that the government assumes that money otherwise not available would be sent home. Extremely poor women who might otherwise demand local jobs that would compete with men were trafficked overseas for prostitution in what Roces (p 14⁎) in this issue accurately describes as the government’s sacrifice of its women for economic gain.
Organized crime is another material reality that is always associated with trafficking for prostitution, yet rarely mentioned in theory. In 2006 Auckland lawyer David Garrett declared decriminalization a “disaster” that had resulted in an “explosion” of children trafficked for prostitution in Auckland and Christchurch as well as three murders of people in prostitution. The trafficking of children in NZ has increased since decriminalization, especially the trafficking of ethnic minority Maori children. A legal pimp who recruited children was arrested and charged in Auckland (Woulfe, 2009). Gangs have waged turf wars over control of prostitution in certain areas in Auckland (Tapaleao, 2009).
Most theories about trafficking fail to address the reality of prostitution’s impact on communities. Since decriminalization, street prostitution has spiraled out of control, especially in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. A 200-400% increase in street prostitution has been reported since prostitution was decriminalized in 2003. Yet the Prostitution Law Review Committee, dominated by the viewpoint that prostitution is a reasonable job for poor women, opined “For people whoseemployment options may be limited, sex work, and particularly street-based sex work, can offer a quick means of achieving financial gains…” (PLRC, 2008:121).
After decriminalization, New Zealand citizens found it difficult to challenge brothels even if they were located near schools or in residential neighborhoods. In response to numerous complaints, the Mayor of Auckland served an abatement notice on a brothel in a residential neighborhood located near a school. Staff at an Auckland agency noted that the numbers of johns in the streets has doubled since decriminalization. Debbie Baker is Manager of Streetreach New Zealand, a support service for people in prostitution that encourages them to leave the sex industry by providing exit strategies. In September 2008, Baker noted adverse effects of New Zealand’s decriminalization of prostitution.
We have also seen a marked increase in men cruising the streets trying to buy sex. Although the numbers vary from day to day, it appears to us that overall, the number of men buyers has doubled since decriminalization. We as a team have been solicited by men while working with our clients on the street. Before decriminalisation this had not happened. These solicitations of the Streetreach staff occurred both in the street and also in massage parlours. The staff at Streetreach believe that the clients of prostitutes who are trying to pick up women have generally become more open and forthright. (Baker in phone interview with Farley 15 September 2008)
Once defined as work, NZ’s decriminalized prostitution law not only encouraged men to buy sex, it transformed prostitution into an acceptable, even attractive job for young, poor women in New Zealand. In one of the Report’s own surveys 25% of those interviewed said that they entered the sex industry because it had been decriminalized (PLRC, 2008:39).
Limoncelli suggests that forming prostitute collectives would make it possible to oversee conditions in sex industries and help to identify trafficked women. While this theory sounds reasonable, that is not the way prostitutes’ unions operate in the real world. Many such unions function as advertising agencies for sex industry pimps rather than as watchdogs.
Even though they represent only a tiny minority of all women in prostitution, the unions strongly influence public opinion, projecting what men who buy sex want to hear. When journalists, feminist theorists, or politicians want to learn about prostitution, women in prostitutes’ unions are approached because they are easier to locate than women who have exited prostitution. Yet there is extremely low membership in prostitutes’ unions in the Netherlands, Germany, and in New Zealand. Most women in prostitution avoid prostitutes’ unions because the social stigma of prostitution remains the same regardless of legal status. Furthermore, the unions don’t offer what most women want: alternatives to prostitution.
COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in USA, the DMSC (Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee) in India and the NZPC (New Zealand Prostitutes Collective) provide examples of the damaging effects of prostitutes’ unions. All three of these unions have promoted prostitution as work, disappearing the harmful consequences of prostitution and failing to hold men who buy sex accountable for the damages they cause.
Task Force on Prostitution included pro-decriminalization advocates and members of COYOTE. Written with the purpose of decriminalizing prostitution, the Task Force’s Report (1996) flatly denied the overwhelming violence in prostitution, refusing to include the testimony of those who had escaped prostitution because of its harms. In 1994, Norma Hotaling attempted to provide testimony to the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, reporting brutal violence that she experienced while in prostitution. She was removed from the Task Force and went on to found SAGE, an organization run by survivors of prostitution. Six other San Francisco organizations who were Task Force members later resigned in protest against the findings of the Report. In response to the Task Force’s denial of violence, the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women authored a 1998 report,“Violence against Women in Prostitution in San Francisco.” (San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, 1998).
The DMSC in Kolkata, a prostitutes’ and pimps’ union that controls tens of thousands of women and children in prostitution, is similar in purpose to the San Francisco prostitutes’ union. Former DMSC Director Dr. Samarjit Jana stated that since sex workers fulfill men’s needs, prostitution must be seen as a profession (Dhar, 1999). Behind the prostituting women of Kolkata’s brothel zone and out of public view are organized criminals who traffic women in prostitution, dominate the DMSC and control the money. Despite its description as a cooperative, the DMSC’s women pimps and their male handlers extort 50% of the earnings of the women and children who are trafficked for prostitution in Sonagachi (Farley, 2006). At the time of this writing, the DMSC is lobbying in favor of laws in India that recognize prostitution as work.
Like the San Francisco and Kolkata unions, the influence of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) came about as a result of public health concerns about HIV in the 1980s when researchers learned about the devastatingly high rates of HIV among prostituted women. Seizing the opportunity to promote a political agenda whilethey also did HIV prevention, the NZPC and other prostitutes’ unions have used public health monies (that became available because of the HIV epidemic) to fund the promotion of decriminalized prostitution.
The common but erroneous theory that prostitution is simply work prevails […]. This view that prostitution is labor skirts recognition of the fact that the
institution of prostitution promotes and cements sex and race inequality. Trafficking expands and markets women’s sexual exploitation and their subordination to men. When these facts are ignored, theory about prostitution gets derailed into strange territory. For example the important issue of immigration abuse, as discussed by Segrave in this issue, is elevated to a central position in the debate. Trafficking for prostitution is then addressed primarily as an issue of transportation or migration, rather than as an issue of women’s sexual exploitation, violence, and inequality. The notion that trafficking for prostitution is banal whereas immigration abuse is the essential harm – reaches its postmodern nadir in a comment by sociologist Laura Agustin about Proposition K (a 2008 initiative to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco):
My guess is that if K passes there will be no great impact either way for migrants who sell sex in San Francisco. Some of them might benefit from not being criminalized per se, but being undocumented workers would remain their principle problem (Yeung, 2008).
The people described by Agustin simply as “undocumented workers” are in fact desperately poor Asian women (Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean) transported by organized criminals to North America for men’s sexual use under slave-like conditions of captivity, violent control, and debt bondage.
There is evidence that very few people freely choose prostitution. O’Connell Davidson (1998:5) notes that only a “tiny minority of individuals” choose prostitution because of the “intrinsic qualities of sex work.” Research in 9 countries found that 89% of all those in prostitution said that they were in prostitution because they had no alternatives for economic survival and that they saw no means of escape (Farley et al., 2003:33-74). Even the International Labor Organization (which defines prostitution as work) found that in Indonesia 96% of those interviewed wanted to escape prostitution (Jones, Sulistyaningsih, & Hull, 1998:43).
Prostitution was decriminalized in New Zealand in 2003. Despite its firmly optimistic assessment that decriminalized prostitution was a success in New Zealand, buried inside the 177 pages of a 2008 Review of the NZ law are a number of disturbing facts about the consequences of both the theory and the practice of a law that defines prostitution as work (Prostitution Law Review Committee (PLRC), 2008:121). The Report noted that after prostitution was decriminalized, violence and sexual abuse in prostitution continued as before. “The majority of sex workers felt that the law could do little about violence that occurred” and that it was an inevitable aspect of the sex industry, according to the Report (PLRC, 2008:14 and 57). During one year post-decriminalization, 35% of women in prostitution reported that they had been coerced in prostitution (PLRC, 2008:46). The highest rate of coercion by johns was reported by women in massage parlor prostitution who were pimp-controlled (described as “managed” by the Report). Furthermore, the social stigma of prostitution persisted after decriminalization.
In the five years since legally defining prostitution as work, the NZ law was unable to alter the exploitive quasi contractual arrangements that existed before prostitution was decriminalized (PLRC,2008:157). Most women in prostitution (either outdoors or indoors) continued to mistrust police and did not report violence or crimes against them to the police (PLRC, 2008:122).
As Roces points out in her article in this issue, trafficking for prostitution is not a
“binary;” women have both agency and victimization in prostitution. Women who are in harm’s way do what is necessary to survive and to obtain food, shelter and if they can, education for themselves and their children. While women are harmed and manipulated in prostitution most nonetheless survive, manage to deconstruct their experiences in prostitution, and in the Philippines as elsewhere, survivors fight back via theater, victim testimony, and by helping other women escape or avoid prostitution. Development Action for Women Network’s (DAWN) analysis of the psychologically destructive process of internal commodification in prostitution is deeply accurate. The fact that women are earning money and supporting families offers the women a way to value themselves but it does not erase the human rights violations of prostitution that also cause profound harm.
As long as prostitution is considered work then it will inevitably function as a social and economic cage especially for poor and ethnically marginalized women. Almost always, when a woman has the resources to avoid prostitution, she does that. If we ignore the material evidence for the structural inequalities of sex, race, and class in trafficking for prostitution and if we ignore the clear statements of women in prostitution who tell us that they want to escape it, then we end up in a postmodern neverland where theory unanchored to reality frames prostitution as a problem of workers’ rights or trafficking as an immigration problem (as Musto suggests in this issue).
One of the most persuasive myths about prostitution is that it is “the oldest profession”. Feminist abolitionists, who wish to see an end to the sex trade, call it “the oldest oppression” and resist the notion that prostitution is merely “a job like any other”.
Now it would appear that the New Zealand immigration service has added “sex work” (as prostitution is increasingly described) to the list of “employment skills” for those wishing to migrate. According to information on Immigration NZ’s (INZ) website, prostitution appears on the “skilled employment” list, but not the “skill shortage” list. My research on the sex trade has taken me to a number of countries around the world, including New Zealand. Its sex trade was decriminalised in 2003, and has since been hailed by pro-prostitution campaigners as the gold standard model in regulating prostitution.
The promises from the government – that decriminalisation would result in less violence, regular inspections of brothels and no increase of the sex trade – have not materialised. The opposite has happened. Trafficking of women into New Zealand into legal and illegal brothels is a serious problem, and for every licensed brothel there are, on average, four times the number that operate illegally. Violent attacks on women in the brothels are as common as ever. “The men feel even more entitled when the law tells them it is OK to buy us,” says Sabrinna Valisce, who was prostituted in New Zealand brothels both before and after decriminalisation. Under legalisation, women are still murdered by pimps and punters.
When prostituted women become “employees”, and part of the “labour market”, pimps become “managers” and “business entrepreneurs”, and the punters are merely clients. Services helping people to exit are irrelevant because who needs support to get out of a regular job? Effectively, governments wash their hands of women under legalisation because, according to the mantra, “It is better than working at McDonald’s.” As one sex-trade survivor told me, “At least when you work at McDonald’s you’re not the meat.”
The decision to include prostitution as an “employment skill” is a green light for pimps to populate brothels to meet the increased male demand for the prostitution of the most vulnerable women.
The practice of using human bodies as a marketplace has been normalised under the neoliberal economic system. Supporting the notion that prostitution is “labour” is not a progressive or female-friendly point of view. I have investigated the breast milk trade in Cambodia, where wealthy American businessmen recruit pregnant women and pay them a pittance for their milk. I have seen desperately hungry men outside hospital blood banks in India, offering to sell their blood in exchange for food. Girls in the Ukraine sell “virgin” blonde hair for use as extensions in western salons. It is increasingly common to “rent a womb” from women in the global south to carry a baby on behalf of privileged westerners.
In the Netherlands, which legalised its sex trade in 2000, it is perfectly legal for driving instructors to offer lessons in return for sex, as long as the learner drivers are over the age of 18.
Under legalisation in Germany, one government-funded NGO, described on its website as a “counselling centre for sex workers”, offers training for women to become “sexual assistant surrogate partnerships” when they decide to leave prostitution. The training focuses on how “sex workers” can help disabled people to explore their sexuality. Providing prostitution services, which is what it is, to men who are ill or disabled is a bit like the “meals on wheels” service, and clearly considered to be a public service. In other legalised regimes, such as Denmark and Australia, prostitution is available for men on the public health system. Perhaps an inevitable conclusion is that carers working with physically disabled couples, where there is a medium to severe level of mobility impairment, are asked to facilitate sex between them – for example, the carer may be expected to insert the penis of one into an orifice of the other.
Any government that allows the decriminalisation of pimping and sex-buying sends a message to its citizens that women are vessels for male sexual consumption. If prostitution is “work”, will states create training programmes for girls to perform the “best oral sex” for sex buyers? Instead of including prostitution as a so-called option in its immigration policies, New Zealand should investigate the harms, including sexual violence, that women in prostitution endure.
If prostitution is “sex work”, then by its own logic, rape is merely theft. The inside of a woman’s body should never be viewed as a workplace.
The New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) has begun seeking to have Section 19 removed from the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA). Section 19 relates the PRA to the Immigration Act, and essentially prohibits anyone who is not a New Zealand citizen from pimping or entering prostitution. It is the section of the PRA that criminalises the most profitable form of pimping: sex trafficking. Currently, journalists like Lincoln Tan at the New Zealand Herald report on sex trafficking on the basis of breaches of this law. Needless to say: removing the law would remove the imperative to investigate any breach. NZPC is arguing that somehow, this would be in trafficked women’s interests.
It has been published in Scoop before that Section 19 has been breached ever since the PRA was passed in 2003. The Trafficking in Persons Report has named New Zealand a source and destination country for sex trafficking consistently, and these reports, alongside work by Tan and Christina Stringer show that women are being trafficked to New Zealand from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Trafficking here is reported to involve bribery; coercion, including into unprotected sex acts (for which women are liable, under the PRA); threats of deportation, debt bondage, passport confiscation, overcrowding, and 16-hour shifts. Even in the context of #metoo and #metoonz, there is no public outrage.
The best way to understand trafficking, then, is simply to understand that it is nothing more than prostitution at its most lucrative for pimps. We know that in any capitalist industry, profiteers are motivated to reduce costs by exploiting vulnerable people, particularly migrants and refugees, through overwork, underpay and minimal investment in working conditions. In prostitution, the profit maximisation imperative means pimps are motivated to use trafficking routes to seek out women in vulnerable positions, remove them from their support networks and from where they can speak the local language, and to transport these women to wherever the laws are well suited to pimping. Debt bondage, passport confiscation and threats of deportation can then be used to keep women trapped. Pimps can also cater to punters’ racialised sexist demands for “exotic” women through trafficking routes.
Another thing to understand – something also previously explained in Scoop – is that NZPC is the New Zealand branch of the Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). The NSWP is an international lobby that promotes legislation favoured by those who profit from prostitution. So NZPC operates from the foregone conclusion that prostitution should be a legitimate industry, and this involves plenty of doublethink. It means, for instance, being government funded for the purposes of “harm reduction” while at the same time denying the degree and extent of harm actually taking place in New Zealand’s sex trade. In the case of sex trafficking, NZPC has long been involved in the Orwellian project of whitewashing sex trafficking into “migrant sex work” (or “working holidays” to use Reed’s phrase), something that can be “empowering” for women. At the same time, they deny that sex trafficking ever happens in New Zealand (as they did in the most recent issue of the Women’s Studies Journal) and are currently leveraging the urgency of trafficking (“illegal migrant prostitutes are too ‘terrified’ to report exploitation”) to promote the rapid removal of Section 19.
Sex trafficking happens in New Zealand because prostitution is legal here. Prostitution is no longer even understood as a form of exploitation – instead, it is understood as “sex work”, a legitimate occupation like any other. So, what is there to investigate? Sexual harrassment? How does one go about investigating and reporting sexual harrassment in a trade that thrives on men paying for sexual access to women by the hour – hour upon hour upon hour? Prostitution involves the very expectation, glamorisation and legitimisation of sexual harrassment and abuse. The removal of legislation to deter trafficking, and the concept of “migrant sex work”, simply absorbs trafficking into an already whitewashed concept of so-called “sex work”.
If NZPC acted in the interests of women, their calls to change Section 19 would not involve them denying the occurrence of trafficking, and relabelling it “migrant sex work” whilst simultaneously drawing attention to the fear and terror in which trafficked women exist in order to blackmail critics out of questioning NZPC’s proposed solutions. If NZPC acted in the interests of women, their current proposals would involve any kind of silencing, but would have been preceeded by a build up of reports on trafficking that they had uncovered, intiated, investigated and challenged publicly – and their proposals would be clearly supported and spearheaded by the voices of trafficked women to which NZPC was providing a platform.
We need a critical discussion on prostitution, and certainly one that priortises its worst manifestations. NZPC’s proposal to remove Section 19 though, is shrouded in secrecy and doublespeak – and the importance of fighting this proposal cannot be emphasised. If New Zealand allows for the invisibilising of the exploitation that is sex trafficking, any trafficked women’s testimony will tell you what kind of downward spiral we have embarked on.
Below are two articles I spotted recently on poverty in New Zealand. I think it is useful to point this out, as sex industry advocates want us to think that prostitution is ‘necessary’ because of women’s poverty, and that prostitution somehow ‘cures’ women’s poverty (if that were true there would be no poverty by now).
If prostitution was such a great way to make money, wouldn’t all poor women do it? The reality is that prostitution is most profitable for the pimps and brothel keepers, and a very small number of young, conventionally attractive, relatively privileged women, for a short time only; other women end up there out of desperation, deeper desperation, it seems, than having to rent a garage to live in.
Schoolgirls in New Zealand are skipping class because they cannot afford sanitary pads and are being forced to use phonebooks, newspapers and rags to make-do during menstruation.
In the last three months local charity KidsCan distributed 4,000 sanitary items to more than 500 low-income schools nationwide after they were given a NZ$25,000 (USD$18,000) government grant to begin to address the issue.
Because KidsCan buy in bulk, they are able to purchase packs of sanitary products for around NZ$1 – instead of the NZ$4-8 that supermarkets usually charge. Sanitary products are taxed in New Zealand.
Vaughan Couillault, principal of Papatoetoe high school in south Auckland, said it was a “serious concern” that many of his 700 female students from lower socio-economic backgrounds could not afford the products to manage their monthly cycle hygienically.
This year KidsCan started supplying the school with sanitary items, but before that his staff would make regular trips to the supermarket to buy sanitary supplies, and charge female students 50 cents to cover costs. According to Couillault, at other low-income schools in New Zealand teachers buy students sanitary products using their own money.
Sarah Kull, a school nurse at Papatoetoe, said since the 50 cent charge was removed the number of students approaching her for sanitary products had increased to around 10-15 pupils each day. Half of them needed one-off items and half were stocking up to cater for their entire period.
“There is a shame factor involved in asking for help with such an intimate part of your life, and I think the girls we see approaching us are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Kull.
“A lot of girls are too embarrassed to ask. We also have about the same number each day come to us for pain relief related to their periods. Paracetamol is cheaper than pads but there is still a cost involved, which for many students from low-income families is unmanageable.”
Labour MP Louisa Wall is spear-heading the campaign to draw attention to school-age girls who can’t afford the average NZ$5-15 (USD$3-10) a month for sanitary items. She has also been told of women in hospital who have been unable to access sanitary items, and that many female university students struggle to pay to cover their periods.
“Local schools started coming to me and saying: ‘We need help with this’. Girls are skipping class and sports because they can’t afford the sanitary items that make their periods a normal part of life,” she said.
“This issue is still taboo and we really need to start addressing it because sanitary items are not a luxury – they are a basic necessity. Not being able to afford them is holding many girls and women back, and I am especially concerned about them missing out on education because of their periods.”
Should we consider schoolgirls in New Zealand to be at a disadvantage compared to the girls in various African countries, were ‘dating’ a ‘sugar daddy’ in return for money for basic essentials like sanitary pads is ‘normal’ (remember, ‘normal’ here doesn’t mean ‘right’ or ‘good’ or ‘beneficial’, it just means commonplace and unremarkable)? Are these schoolgirls being ‘oppressed’ by the age limit of 18 to enter the sex industry? Remember, sex industry advocates are pushing for the decriminalisation of the commercial sexual exploitation of children as well (this is something I want to write about in more detail, I have seen a sex industry advocate use the rationalisation that ‘children are poor too’).
Hundreds of families in Auckland are living in cars, garages and even a shipping container as a housing crisis fuelled by rising property prices forces low-income workers out of private rental accommodation.
Charity groups have warned that, as the southern hemisphere winter approaches, most of the premises have no electricity, sewage or cooking facilities.
“This is not people who haven’t been trying. They have been trying very hard and still they’re failing,” said Campbell Roberts of The Salvation Army, who has worked in South Auckland for 25 years.
“A few years ago people in this situation were largely unemployed or on very low-incomes. But consistently now we are finding people coming to us who are in work, and have their life together in other ways, but housing is alluding them.”
Auckland’s housing market is one of the most expensive in the world, with property prices increasing 77.5% over the last five years (this growth has now slowed), and the average house price fetching over NZ$940,000 (£440,000), according to CoreLogic, New Zealand.
Combined with low interest rates, rising migration, near full occupancy of state housing in South Auckland, and minimal wage rises, the pressure on many low to middle income earners has become too much to bear.
Some families are now forced to choose between having a permanent roof over their heads, or feeding themselves and their children.
Jenny Salesa, a Labour MP in the South Auckland suburb of Otara, says Maori and Pacific peoples are overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of Auckland’s housing crisis, and she has people coming to her office every day begging for help.
“People are living in garages with ten family members and paying close to NZ$400 for the privilege,” said Salesa.
“People are ashamed their lives have come to this, and they try to hide. But you can tell which garages are occupied – there are curtains on the windows, small attempts to make it a home. And on the weekends, in the park, there can be up to fifty cars grouped together, with people sleeping in them.”
Salesa estimates nearly 50% of people asking for her help in finding a home are in paid employment, and many families have two parents working and are still unable to make ends meet.
Nobody knows exactly how many people are living rough in Auckland, but common estimates range in the hundreds.
Darryl Evans, CEO of Mangere Budgeting in South Auckland, says on some roads in South Auckland every second house has additional accommodation erected – be it an occupied garage, a portable cabin with a chemical toilet, or tents pitched on the front and back lawn.
“Up until a few years ago, a family member might let you camp in the garage at no cost, as a temporary set-up,” said Evans.
“But now landlords have cottoned on to how desperate people are, and are renting out garages or Portakabins for hundreds of dollars. Our food bank – every food bank in Auckland – is under the most pressure its ever been.”
Evans has also seen many families get trapped in a cycle of a gradual migration south, chasing cheaper rents, but causing huge unrest for children, who are unable to access regular schooling, health care or social support networks.
“People living in these situations are feeling huge shame,” said Evans.
Last week the New Zealand government announced NZ$41.1m for emergency housing, but with winter mere weeks away, charities believe any assistance will come too late for most.
“We warned the government six or seven years ago that a housing crisis was looming,” said Roberts.
“Successive governments have ignored our warnings, and now look where we are. The worst homelessness I have seen in 25 years. You might be able to survive like this in the summer, but you can’t in winter. You just can’t live like this in a New Zealand winter.”
Many former prostitutes do not support the full decriminalisation of the sex industry, as a model exemplified by New Zealand (NZ), which was indicated as a possible long term aim in the report. As such the model received comparatively little criticism compared to the Sex Buyer Law, in spite of the wealth of criticism available from many respectable organisations, as has been indicated, including survivor organisation SPACE International. As a former prostitute, not only was I dismayed by the predominate male panel, but by the cautious bias indicated in the report, saliently demonstrated in the insistence upon qualifying the positives for the Sex Buyer Law, whilst being remarkably uncritical of the purported positives of full decriminalisation.
I was also dismayed, hugely, by the paucity of attention noted to the element of the Sex Buyer Law which calls for government funded support services for women exiting, or have exited the sex industry, as in France where almost five million Euros per year is being offered; an amount which although insufficient, represents a starting point. Whichever legal system is in place, it is utterly irrelevant to the needs of prostitutes – who are often forced to return to the industry because of the lack of support in exiting – without adequate exiting services specific to their needs. As a former prostitute and as someone who has recently spent time interviewing women in prostitution and exited women, services that support women who suffer from trauma, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – and who wish to escape – should receive access to secular assistance, include temporary emergency housing, refuge, counselling and aid in obtaining social security.
Though I and other survivors would support the decriminalizing of those who sell sex, I would caution emphatically against the decriminalizing of brothel management and profiteering, especially if it enables the existence of large brothels and brothel chains. Unlike some of the women who gave evidence from the perspective of the industry who support the New Zealand model, I have actually worked in a New Zealand brothel. I discussed my experience in a recent article, however to summarize, the long term consequences of the ability of some to operate large brothels include increased competition and decreased charges as the brothels begin to run on a ‘low price/high volume’ basis, which can lead to prostitutes having to see more customers and needing to offer a higher range of, often, more dangerous or uncomfortable sexual activities, such as oral sex without a condom and anal sex.
In theory, the NZ model enables women to refuse customers however there is a very limited number of customers you can refuse before the brothel suggests you find other places to work, and often will insist on you having a ‘good reason’ to refuse any given customer. In practice, in all brothels, women will regularly have sex with customers that they simply do not want to. This has serious implications for laws relating to sexual harassment and coercion in the work place, unless of course, we are to make prostitution a special case.
Added to which, we are supposed to be able to negotiate the services that we are willing to offer, but from my own experience, this often doesn’t work in practice as the brothel managers can apply soft pressures. Indeed it is self policing, as customers simply won’t choose women who try to put up too many ‘boundaries’ as competition is so fierce, and as such women either capitulate to demands or struggle to earn enough money.
Punters feel vindicated in applying pressure and putting the prostitute at greater risk of danger, pain or discomfort, because the industry has been legitimised and they feel they have a right as consumers. The humanity of the women who are rented has always been shaky, but this is further cemented by the mega brothel culture.
I have spoken to Chelsea who currently works in a NZ brothel and has corroborated my story:
My experience at the brothel is that of terrorism. It is a constant battle to uphold even the most minimal personal boundaries such as safer sex practices, like condoms and dental dams and no saliva transference (kissing) and not doing the deed more than once for a guy without being paid more than once. I definitely find it extremely difficult to even get bookings because most of the time I attempt to assert these minimal of boundaries.
She and I are not alone as critics who have experience of the New Zealand model. Sabrinna Valisce, a former campaigner for it, has since changed her position:
I worked pre- and post-law reform. The Prostitution Reform Bill passed into law to become The Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) in 2003. The good part of it was that the threat of a criminal record was removed. This would happen under The Nordic Model also. I volunteered at the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), so I was [able to compare our decriminalization] goal … to the results. I, and others who were agitating for decriminalization in New Zealand, we always wanted the power to be placed firmly in the hands of the prostituted person/sex worker. Decriminalization didn’t do that. The power went to the brothel owners, escort agency owners and johns. Immediately following the PRA, the pimps became legitimate businessmen. They introduced “All-Inclusive.” An “All-Inclusive” is a single fee paid by the john to the brothel/escort agency via the receptionist. This means that the prostituted person/ sex worker has no power of negotiation. It also means that the pimp decides her earnings. The pimps gained the power to decide what a “service” would be paid and how much of that belonged to them. They also gained the power to withhold the woman’s earnings or even deny any existence of those earnings. Prior to law reform we negotiated our own money and decided our own services.
I would urge the panel and the government to put more consideration into exit services, and to consider the opinions of those campaigners, who have direct experience of the New Zealand model, who feel extremely strongly that the decriminalisation of brothel keeping and profiteering will further harm women in prostitution, and take what powers of negotiation or assertion they have, away.
Yet again the males on the left have let women down, while kidding themselves that they are being progressive. Jeremy Corbyn has said, during a talk at Goldsmiths University, that he is in favour of decriminalising the sex trade. “Let’s do things a bit differently and in a more civilised way,” he said.
But there is nothing civilised about legitimising one of the most exploitative industries on the planet.
It is apt that Corbyn made his admission at Goldsmiths. Any feminist in support of criminalising sex-buyers is instantly accused by members of Goldsmiths’ feminist society of hating prostituted women, or “whorephobia”, as it is known. This twist of logic is quite something considering the law that criminalises demand also decriminalises those selling sex.
I cannot believe that Corbyn is so misinformed as to see the blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade as necessary to uphold the human rights and safety of those selling sex. In Sweden, the first country to introduce the sex-buyer law in 1999, not one prostituted woman has been murdered by a pimp or sex-buyer since then. In New Zealand, where the sex trade was decriminalised in 2003, there have been five murders.
What decriminalisation actually means is that control is taken away from the criminal justice agencies and given to local authorities. Under this model, pimps become managers, and brothel owners are business entrepreneurs.
The only difference between decriminalisation and legalisation is that under legalisation the state becomes the official pimp by making certain aspects of the trade legal. This way it can collect taxes and impose compulsory health checks on prostituted women – something the great feminist abolitionist Josephine Butler campaigned against in the 19th century.
Many on the left believe any criminalisation of the industry stigmatises those who sell sex, and that the selling of sex should be regarded as a job like any other. But there is a growing body of research showing that in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Nevada and the Netherlands, where prostitution has been legalised or decriminalised, there is an increase in demand, which in turn has led to an increase in people coerced into prostitution. Such regimes lead to an increase in the legal as well as the illegal sex trade.
In researching my forthcoming book on the international sex trade, I have spoken to a number of women currently and formerly involved in the sex trade in New Zealand, the country hailed as nirvana since the disaster of legalisation in Holland became public.
One interviewee began working in a New Zealand brothel just after she turned 18, prior to decriminalisation. I asked her what decriminalisation had changed. “I don’t think it made any difference,” she said, “because the boss still does everything really dodgy, and I think that’s how he did it when it was illegal.”
The idea that pimps and other exploiters would suddenly turn into considerate employers who pay taxes and abide by the law simply because they are no longer technically criminals is ridiculous.
The sex workers’ rights lobby that has targeted Labour with its propaganda on the benefits of decriminalisation minimises and denies harm. The only harm it is prepared to acknowledge is caused, according to this logic, by feminists and police officers.
One sex workers’ rights activist recently claimed in her blog: “No sex worker I know reports clients as being the biggest problem … It’s always the rescuers, the police and the state that do them the most harm.”
What utter rubbish. While police brutality is prevalent towards women in prostitution in a number of countries, the rapes, homicides and violence from pimps and punters is well documented. In the UK alone, there have been 153 murders of prostituted women since 1990 – none committed by feminist abolitionists or police.
Why the left supports the rights of pimps and brothel owners is a mystery. It is akin to supporting tobacco industry profiteers in order to destigmatise smokers.
Corbyn and his colleagues would do well to listen to survivors of the sex trade before taking such an uninformed line on the best way to regulate prostitution.
As Rachel Moran, sex trade survivor and author of Paid For, remarked: “Males of the left defy every principle they purport to stand for when they contort their own political values to view women’s bodies as commercial products subject to purchase in free market economics. No other social group is treated this way by the men of the left.
“It is only women who are deemed so worthless as to be denigrated with this indignity, and it is only women whose equal human status is so unthinkable as to motivate them to turn their backs on their own politics.”