What lies beneath prostitution policy in New Zealand?

The rosy rhetoric that surrounds prostitution policy in New Zealand is being exposed by survivors of the prostitution system and the way that harm is glossed over by defenders of this approach.

Maddy Coy Pala Molisa
6 December 2016

Prostitution and trafficking are increasingly contested in international human rights and policy forums, with debates polarised around the question of whether the prostitution system entrenches institutionalised male dominance, or if its harm grows out of associated criminality and stigma. In April 2016 France joined other countries in adopting the approach now often referred to as the Nordic Model – decriminalisation of selling sex alongside exit and support programmes, together with criminalisation of sex purchase. This human rights approach sits in sharp contrast to the endorsement of the New Zealand approach by Amnesty International and in the interim report of the UK Home Affairs Select Committee.

So what do we know, and think we know, about the impacts of prostitution policy in New Zealand? 

In 2003, the NZ Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) decriminalised commercial sex businesses so that they now operate on a legal and legitimate basis. Defenders paint a rosy picture of this reform, claiming that decriminalisation of all aspects of prostitution minimises its harm, and makes the lives of women who are bought and sold for sex safer.

This is not the reality of the NZ approach on the ground.

It is chiefly through women who have written about their experiences of the prostitution system in NZ, that we know what we do about the gulf between rosy rhetoric and reality.  For example, Sabrinna Valisce, a survivor of the sex trade, has spoken powerfully about the evidence that goes largely uncited and undocumented in research: the power handed to pimps when they became ‘legitimate businessmen’;  increases in numbers of women in brothels; demands by men for cheaper prices and more ‘extras’; the normalisation of unwanted sexual practices like sex without condoms. Rae Story’s stirring account of her time in NZ brothels indicates who really exercises the power in prostitution. Her interviews with prostitution survivors express scepticism and anger about decriminalisation. Sally (not her real name), a woman still in the sex industry, is blunt about the realities. She says: “Sexual assault and sexual harassment are part of the role. They are not isolated incidents. Our role is to be harassed, assaulted, raped. As well as to be an entertainer, counsellor, maid, masseuse”.  

Silences that roar

The adulation of the NZ approach by its defenders masks the silence about women’s experiences of harm, with evidence glossed over or distorted. Take, for example, violence.

The Westminster government Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) interim report quotes several sources who claim that decriminalisation in NZ has ‘encouraged’ women to report violence, and that ‘women were allowed to report without fear of action by the police’. The HASC report cites a conclusion of the 2008 Prostitution Law Reform Act Committee (PLRAC) report: interviewees felt ‘women were more likely’ to report violence to the police under decriminalisation. These claims make a subtle but important elision: there is a difference between aiming to encourage women to report violence to the police, perceiving that women would be more likely to and/or were allowed to, and paying attention to the evidence that women are not actually reporting. Research cited by the PLRAC  report for example, suggests that ‘few’ women across all sectors of the NZ sex industry had reported violence to the police.

But let’s take a step back. The PLRAC report also states that the majority of women perceived that decriminalisation ‘could do little about the violence that occurred’. A 2012 parliamentary paper subsumes violence under ‘working conditions’ and cursorily acknowledges that violence and exploitation, including of children, has continued. The conclusion drawn in such reports is that violence is inevitable and that the best the law can hope for is to enable survivors to seek support in its aftermath. Exploitation of indigenous and Pacific women is glossed over, despite the role prostitut plays in entrenching colonisation and the knowledge of women’s organisations about coercion and trafficking of young Islander women.

Why do we settle for this? At least four women involved in prostitution are known to have been murdered in NZ by sex buyers since 2003: Suzie Sutherland and Anna Louise Wilson in 2005; Ngatai Lynette Manning in 2008; Nuttidar Vaikaew in 2009.

Is all we aspire to that the one big achievement of decriminalisation is to help police solve the murders (as cited in the HASC report)? What has become of our goal of ending men’s violence against women, including lethal violence? Where is recognition that the prostitution system is built on misogyny and racism/colonisation? Where is women’s right to live free from violation?

In 2012, Maddy and Janine Benedet followed Sheila Jeffreys in extending Liz Kelly’s concept of the continuum of violence against women (VAW) to the prostitution system. We argued that prostitution is a form of VAW in that it shares ‘common characters’ of gendered asymmetry; men’s entitlement; invasions of women’s bodies. Prostitution forms part of ‘a continuous series of elements or events’ of violence and violation in women’s lives.

These ways of understanding prostitution and violence change how we make claims about, and how we measure, reductions of violence. If prostitution is a socially institutionalised practice of VAW, we can be much more ambitious about ending it.  As the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women recognizes, violence against women is historically and socially constructed. That is, it is not natural and it is not inevitable. This means that harm minimisation is not the best we can do or the most we can hope for. If the violation at the heart of the prostitution system is socially constructed, then it can be socially un-constructed.

The erasure of men’s privilege

Now let’s go back one step further. Analysis of newspaper coverage of prostitution in New Zealnd from 2000-2013 by Pantea Farvid and Lauren Glass found that women who sell sex on the street were still ‘deplored’ and that men who buy sex were ‘noticeably absent’ in media reports. Decriminalisation has not dislodged the gendered stigma attached to the prostitution system. The PRA report and researchers  acknowledge this.  This is no surprise to those of us who understand that stigma does not originate in the illegality of selling sex. In the prostitution system, women are literally ‘other’: dehumanised, disembodied for men’s sexual gratification. Casting women as criminals compounds this stigma. Its roots go far, far deeper. Not surprisingly, then, a key conclusion by Pantea Farvid and Lauren Glass is that NZ newspaper coverage individualises the issues at stake so that the context of persistent and ongoing inequality between women and men becomes invisible. This, as Pala has commented, echoes research on prostitution in NZ: ‘doesn’t look at sex as a way men can demonstrate and enforce power over women. It’s research that paints a sanitised picture of the sex industry — a picture that doesn’t show the role of institutionalised male power in the sex industry’.

The need to choose – and choose again

Global debates over prostitution boil down to whether or not we can muster the courage to honestly confront the realities of systemic violence and structural power. The pro-full decriminalization lobby says prostitution is just “work”. But this can only hold by routinely downplaying and overlooking how prostitution is based on and reinforces oppressive systems of power. This can only be done if, deep down, we don’t really believe that women are truly human. If deep down, we don’t really believe that sexual objectification can be overcome. Or that male entitlement can be changed. If, deep down, we don’t really believe that men can change. Those who champion the NZ model choose to limit our visions to harm-minimisation while keeping the root causes of the harms in place. So we need to re-examine these choices. And choose again, differently.

Read more articles on openDemocracy in this year's 16 Days: Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Commissioning Editor: Liz Kelly


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